It is one of my greatest fears. I have abandoned my creativity before; this blog is my chronicle of returning to an art-committed life and working to stay there. That is also a central theme of the travel memoir I am in the process of polishing to final. But it is so easy to drift away from the creative path. That fear drives me to ponder what factors can lead us away from our muse.
In less than two months I will have an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. During this program I’ve heard horror stories about MFA graduates (of any creative field) almost immediately drifting away from their craft post-graduation. So in doing a little online surfing to find examples of this, I came across the blog of a woman who graduated from VCFA a year before me, Shawna Lenore Kastin. Here’s what she wrote about her experience post-graduation:
I graduated this summer and it was scary and wonderful and bittersweet. And then I got home and I didn’t feel like writing. But more than that, I suddenly hated writing. The whole process felt like trying to cram my head through the eye of a needle. So I stopped for a month. But I was terrified I would never start again so I forced myself back to work. And writing felt like work. Boring, miserable, “Why am I doing this to myself?” work. And why was I doing this to myself? Why not just quit and join the circus or find myself an actual pirate ship or *gasp* get a normal job like a sensible person? That would be so much easier than writing.
It took Shawna six months to start writing again. And she tells us she is still, but “very slowly.” So what factors lead us to abandon our craft, particularly when we’ve been so dedicated for so long?
- Lack of deadlines. I’m forty-five years old. I spent sixteen years meeting deadlines in school, then about fifteen years meeting deadlines as a reporter, and now about a decade meeting deadlines in a variety of other communications jobs. I know that every one of my readers also faces deadlines in their own professions. In a low-residency MFA program, there is a looming deadline very month. A typical VCFA semester requires me about every four weeks to produce thirty pages of original and/or revised prose. I have now turned in my final packet for VCFA. I have a memoir manuscript that I completed in that program, but it’s rough and needs revision. I am attempting to set a revision schedule for myself. But no external force will require me to adhere to that schedule. I can’t tell my wife and kids or employer “Sorry, I have to meet this MFA deadline.” This is, of course, the daily existence of most creatives.
- Lack of encouragement. I read last night my final packet letter from this semester’s advisor. It was, as these letters often are, very encouraging. He provided some direct guidance for improving the material I provided him, as well as constructive advice for revising the manuscript as a whole. But I seized on his final sentence, which I will quote here without his permission: “For one thing, your manuscript will become a book, and I’ll want my copy autographed.” How will I keep writing without these monthly injections of encouragement? Where will I find that endorphin injection post-MFA? There are family members, writing groups, local courses. But by and large I will be returning to the natural order of things in a writer’s life: solitude.
- Lack of quantifiable and regular measures of success. When creatives put their works out into the world, there is no guarantee of acceptance. A literary journal may sit on an essay for months and then reject it (this is the normal state of affairs for even the most successful writer). The same cycle applies for painters, photographers, songwriters, etc. A third-party validation clearly provides motivation, but they are in no way predictable, the way a monthly packet letter is. So, like self-imposed deadlines and self-encouragement, I must set my own measures of success–perhaps completing a certain revision by a certain date, or pulling off an extended metaphor that has been thwarting me for months–and hope that is enough.
I wish I could say I had the answers to these three challenges. I would love to tell you, “Okay, now here are the three actions you can take to ensure you continue with an art-committed life.” But I do not have those answers. I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., for a quarter-century, my professional life entangled with politics and policy. We are all very good at identifying problems. Developing and implementing solutions? Well, you know our track record with that.
I’d welcome your thoughts. Have I left out obstacles? Am I overlooking work-arounds? What has worked for you to keep going with your creative endeavors, or to return to them after drifting away, like Shawna did? I’d like to learn from you today.