I was listening to Brené Brown’s TED talks last night (again), and it reminded me of how important vulnerability is for writers. It isn’t natural or comfortable, but I think it’s crucial. A writer’s job is to tell the truth—not just larger truths about mankind and the world, but also about ourselves. But in this age of phony internet sell-thyself coolness, vulnerability is kind of a bad idea, career-wise. We’re supposed to be awesome all the time.
In May I will graduate with my MFA in creative writing. When people ask, I tell them how exited I am, because that’s what I’m supposed to say. But the reality is that ever since I defended my thesis last month, I’ve had serious writer’s block. I sit down in front of my computer to finish a story for the collection I’m working on, and fifteen minutes later find myself outside weeding the backyard. Or scrubbing the grout in the bathtub. Or performing some other task that only a few weeks ago I would have scoffed at as beneath my higher artistic calling. At first I thought I was just taking a mental break from a rigorous few months of thesis preparation. I really do want to write. So why am I weeding?
Partially I’m anxious. For the past three years, I have enjoyed being the awardee of a competitive and generous fellowship that meant I was granted free tuition as well as a little extra money on the side. The money has, of course, been nice. Beyond nice. But I think the fellowship has meant even more to me emotionally than financially, because being granted that award allowed me to start believing in myself. Whenever I was overcome with potentially annihilating self-doubt, I could console myself by remembering that I was The One They Gave All That Money To. In a way, it was like being the recipient of some kind of literary prize. But as I near graduation, when I will be vomited out into the world with so many other holders of MFA degrees, I’ll go back to being a nobody. Just another hopeful writer with a hard disk full of manuscripts and a head full of hope. I’ll have to find other reasons to believe in myself, because I can already tell that “the fellowship I got for grad school” is going to have a short emotional shelf life post-graduation.
Another reason that I haven’t been able to write, I suspect, is that I’m disappointed. It’s not that I haven’t learned anything from being in an MFA program. I can’t begin to calculate all the things I’ve learned and read in the last three years. Still—and I feel stupid admitting this—I just kind of thought that when I graduated, I’d be Alice Munro or Toni Morrison. And of course I’m not. Most of the stories I send out for publication go into some kind of literary black hole.
Some of the people I know who graduated ahead of me are no longer writing. And that scares me. But I can also understand it. It takes discipline but it also takes guts to put everything you’ve got on paper and send it out into the sometimes-mean-but-mostly-apathetic world. It takes a certain courage to follow your heart into a black hole and snatch it back. This is the life of a writer. Some days—like today—pulling weeds seems more appealing.