I recently found a line in my old journal that reads, “What I really want to do is get an MFA in creative writing.” I wrote this on April 25, 2000. More than fifteen years ago. At the time I had spent two exhausting years getting a single-subject credential to teach high school English, and I had finished student teaching and was waiting tables again, killing time before a school district hired me the next fall (the Friday before school started, as it turned out).
I had always loved books and writing, had a degree in English, and thought I could share my love of literature with the 9th, 11th, and 12th graders I ended up teaching. I jumped in with gusto. Teaching, however, wasn’t what I expected. I worked very hard. I was too nice. It was hell. I quit after two years.
When I found that declaration of my real passion in my journal, I was surprised. I didn’t remember I had wanted an MFA that far back. I thought I’d only seriously considered it in my 30s.
Why didn’t I get an MFA back then?
Hindsight. 20/20. You know the drill.
I was almost 27 when I wrote the journal entry about wanting an MFA, though back then my only experience writing creatively was one semester in high school and a few opportunities here and there during my credential program when I wrote mediocre poetry and bad fiction. (How does anyone write fiction?)
The truth is I wasn’t ready then for an MFA program. It would take me seven more years to focus on writing creative nonfiction with any measure of consistency. I’ve since come to accept I will always be a late bloomer, and there’s no deadline for success.
I eventually took a University of California, Irvine Extension class online in 2007. Then I took two online courses through Gotham Writers Workshop (memoir and advanced memoir), a two-day workshop at UCLA on finding your unique voice, and another online memoir class through a program I will not name that is now defunct. (Oh, and one “Fuck Fear” writing seminar while I lived in Georgia.)
In between all those classes, I swore I would write on my own, and I never did. That’s what I wanted to do, but why was it so hard to do it? Perfectionism. It kills any opportunity to make real progress. I was paralyzed by the fear of failure. I let it engulf me whenever I didn’t have external deadlines.
On top of that, my last online class was such a negative experience that I swore off writing for the next two years. I didn’t think I could get any better than I already was, and I thought I wasn’t good enough.
With a mended ego after a two-year hiatus, I decided an in-person workshop was what I needed, so I found Shawna Kenney’s UCLA Extension personal-essay class that would change everything. That’s when it clicked. That’s when I realized whatever I wrote was “just a draft” that could be fixed later, as she told us. It was freeing. I learned to move through the fear, a fear that won’t ever really go away.
I’ve since participated in four other eight-week in-person workshops and a two-week daily writing-prompt class, as well as one-on-one editing time with Kenney. I could not have begun to understand how much I would accomplish in the last three years when I showed up to that first class at UCLA.
I wrote my essay collection in six months starting in January 2014, and I edited it for more than a year. Now my manuscript is done. Done. You guys, I wrote a book (79,000 words, with another 13,425 words I cut)! A whole book! Me! The person who quit writing for two years because she didn’t think she had it in her to finish editing one essay, let alone 17 of them and a few others I plan to publish separately.
My work did get better, and it will continue to do so. It really is about perseverance and finding a mentor who will prop you up and push you forward.
I’ve never been one of those people who believe everyone should pursue her dreams at all costs. When actors say, “Never give up on your dreams!” during Oscar speeches, I cringe. Not everyone is talented enough to win an Oscar; very few will get one. Don’t give kids false hope, I would say.
However, I’ve learned dreams don’t have to require a podium and an acceptance speech; they can be smaller, and they can change as you get older. Realistic expectations are healthy. It is nice to aim high, but goals need to be reachable, too.
I never did get an MFA, but now I realize I don’t need one for what I set out to do. Writing a decent book was my goal; I’ve now accomplished that. Writing this book was the most difficult, emotionally draining feat I’ve ever accomplished, and I can’t wait to start writing a second one. I must be insane. Or a writer.
It took me a long time to say that.
But first, there’s the matter of finding an agent and a publisher. The work won’t stop. And I don’t want it to. I’m in.
Chelsey Drysdale is a writer and editor living in Long Beach, Calif. Her essays have appeared in Book Lovers (Seal Press), Black Fox Literary Magazine, and Bustle. She was also Smith Magazine’s Memoirist of the Month in July 2014 and is a contributor in The Best Advice in Six Words. She is a current Pushcart Prize nominee and is seeking a home for her completed essay collection, Yes Girl. An earlier version of her craft essay first appeared on her blog, http://facebanned.blogspot.com.