MFAs and Crises of Purpose


writerI graduated with my MFA this May (2013) much to the joy of my wife and myself who, after two years of study while working full time, forgot what each-other looked like.

My happiness promptly died out about 2 hours after getting home a few days later from graduation/celebrating at a fellow graduate’s home.

Now that I found the absence of that comfortable MFA blanket—the one that said my work was valuable, that I was going places, and that I didn’t have anything to worry about except writing—the cold hard world was looking to pick a fight, and I didn’t have anything to defend myself with.

Work became more of a burden to me, creatively at least. I spend all day writing and then come home to (one would hope) more writing. However I didn’t come home to that. I came home to being sick of writing and wasting my time in other pursuits—mostly flash games or complaining about my job to my wife and dog and cat. I wanted to write, I could feel it clamoring around inside of my brain, but when I sat down it felt too much like work and much less like I was accomplishing something. It felt like I was surrendering away too much time to my business writing and it was leaving my creative writing bruised. It still feels that way, come to think of it.

Now, I’ve been at this job for five years. I’ve snuck in lunch-break stories and secreted sentences during business meetings. It’s fun. It reminds me that I’m not just a corporate editor trying to turn a buck. I’m pulling one over on these people, right? I’m not one of them, surely. But after 5 years I’m feeling the strain. I’m just tired all the time of writing, and it’s having a horrendous impact now that I don’t have a program that forces me into writing.

There are hundreds of very valiant posts and articles about forcing oneself to write—I’ve probably authored a few on this site, in fact—but they don’t matter one bit to me when I drive home and think about how nice it will be to not be doing something. I’m still producing stories thanks to a writing group I’m a part of, but for the love of God it’s easy to ignore those guys, too.

And so this is where I am: I’m an editor of an online IT magazine that exists for the sole purpose of getting eyes on to ads for my company’s offerings. I am a writer who struggles to write stories, and I’m not satisfied with either.

And this is the first of the crises: the crisis of what I’m doing with myself. It’s not a matter of “why did I get my MFA,” because I got it so I could experience getting it—so I could be part of a community that was solely focused on writing. I got that, and I never expected to make my money back on the effort (those article about what MFA holders are good for drive me crazy. I went for the experience and to hone myself, nothing more. Nobody really looks for MFA holders short of universities. Let’s just face that down).

I posted this question up on Facebook in a moment of exposed-heartedness, and the overall consensus was a mix of either “you’ll get through this” or “figure out when you’re happiness, and then figure out how to do that more.” Good advice and kind words, and I know they are right—or at least more right than what my natural impulse is, which is to delve into daydreams about winning lotteries or running away to a cabin I’ll somehow build out of logs and leaves.

So Facebook therapy pointed me in the direction of finding my joy, and pursuing it. If I knew what made me happy, that would be a relatively easy thing to do, I think. But I don’t quite have that answer, and I’m not even quite sure how to reach for it.

When I was in the MFA I was able to be pretty self-aware of what I enjoyed. I liked reviewing people’s work; I liked reading people’s work and strengthening it. That would point to angling my life closer to being a reviewer/editor, and that’s all well and good—but how do I get there?

If I had a do-over, I’d make sure the director and staff of my MFA discussed the crises of purpose that comes after graduation. I just spent two accelerated years gaining a terminal degree which taught me that the story is one of the most noble, important ventures humanity can take. I come out into the world with that belief only to quickly realize that nobody is willing to pay me a living wage to create stories.

And that’s fine—I get it. I realize that almost nobody can make that sort of scratch off of writing stories (at least not a humble writer like myself). But I wonder how I can do more reviews and critiques while balancing my work life. Or if I’m even able to move into a life where doing reviews and helping stories become stronger is part of my work.

Yes, that points to academia in a way—and maybe that’s the answer. I don’t think there is much room for another paid reviewer of stories in the world, and the idea of opening up a “story reviews and critiques” clinic in Lancaster is tempting, but altogether strikes me as an out-of-car-trunk service. I’d need to grease my hair.

I really don’t know what the answer is, as I’m sure you can tell by this rambling post. For those of you that followed along, I appreciate it, but I’m pretty sure I’m just working something out by writing it, which is something all of us could afford to do at one time or another.

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8 thoughts on “MFAs and Crises of Purpose

  1. I wasn’t in a position to participate in the aforementioned Facebook conversation, but I did read the responses with rapt attention. All of this is so familiar to me (absent the MFA part). I wonder more every year if my chosen day-career in a world of writing, editing, publishing, and associated tasks in the business environment has drained from me what I need to do the same once I get home. More than not writing enough of my own work, I’ve found I barely read long-form anymore. And as we know, reading is half of writing–so I am doing neither half of the equation. This is why I daydream of a job cleaning houses or maintaining trails, a physically grueling job that allows my mind to wander so I can plot and plan during the day, then have it fresh to pen down at night.

    The only advice I would provide (and it is admittedly similar to that which you have received already) is to expand your idea of “what makes you happiest.” Yes, on the surface, you like to review and edit. But what unifying feeling underlies the tasks you like? For me, I realized I like to write novels because I like the “aha” feeling of solving big problems. Writing a novel is creating an enormous problem for myself to solve. I also like to analyze semantics, definitions, and meaning–I like the feeling of precision of communication and understanding. So I seek projects at work that allow me to solve problems, and/or to analyze text. So what feelings do you like (rather than tasks)? Do you like to teach? To lead? To follow? To repair things? To see someone else grow? To see yourself grow after helping someone else? Search for the feeling, then find the tasks (which may surprise you) that allow you to feel it.

    • Elly, I always appreciate when you jump in. To your points, I agree that I need to figure out what it is that makes me happiest, then figure out what part of that process is doing the trick, and then figuring out how I can facilitate that process consistently.

      It’s just hard, at this dark-low point, to go through that process. I know I have to, and I already have started (hence the post), but man-o-day that’s going to be something else to work out.

  2. I used to dream of building myself a cabin out of rocks and sand, armed with nothing other than a wheelbarrow and some hand tools. That was at a time when I was striving desperately to create a foundation in my life, when I thought that I hadn’t yet created one and that I ought to desperately. Come to think of it, those dreams coincided with one of the unhappiest times in my life. …I’m with that half of your FB friends who say, don’t worry. You’ll get through this. And your writing and your love for it will still be there waiting for you when you do.

    • Was it Churchill that said something like “If you’re going through Hell, keep going” – I think that’s where my head’s at right now, if I want to be really melodramatic about it.

  3. So glad you wrote this post. I have found myself in the same black hole of the post-MFA, and I agree with your point that it might have been discussed more as a concrete thing and less of a tangential “this is what it will feel like when you’re done” conversation. I work in a university, so it’s hard for me to fight the knee-jerk reaction to enroll in second degree program just because I can. My significant other reminded me that I spent two years of my life slaving over stories that I never thought I would write. I liked the disciplined bubble of our cohort and now that I don’t have it, I’m very much struggling to find that “higher purpose” in my 9-5 when I could sit at home and read and write and play with my cat. I would say this: it sounds like you need something new, something that’s more of a challenge in your work, something that excites you in a way that your IT article writing no longer does, so look around and see what sort of things people need help with. That, to me, is what it sounds like you really enjoy: helping others in a concrete way, whether it’s with a story or something else. And that can be interpreted in many ways.

    Anyway, I have to follow my own advice and start pushing some of my stories out the door–so we’ll see how that goes.

    • I think you’re right. I do think I enjoy helping people. But I also kinda hate people, which gives me reason to pause. I think that’s why being a professor is tempting, as I can be a little prissy and still help out.

  4. As someone who recently completed an MFA, and who has long done a very similar sort of business writing to pay the bills while pursuing more creative projects, I want to thank you for this honest, brave post. I don’t want to offer advice–largely because I think that part of the point of your post is that this sort of advice isn’t so helpful–but I do think that the difficulty in balancing these things is, if anything, proof that the pursuits are worth it. Here’s hoping you find a better balance in the future.

    (Okay, some real advice; I lied. Have you talked to your employer about possibly working from home? I do this now, and it doesn’t seem like a huge thing, but it makes the day job writing a lot easier to swallow).

    • Thanks for commenting, Matt.

      I do work from home one day a week (both for my own sanity and because I live about 45 minutes from where I work). However, my boss thinks I need to be in the office in order for our organization to be effective–which isn’t true, but is enough to keep me cubicle-bound.

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