In the years after I got my MFA I was a miserable mess. I felt like a failure as a writer and a human being. I still feel that way sometimes, but now I try and fail and try again and I know that does not mean I am a failure, it only means I am a person like everyone else. If I could, here are some things I would tell my self six years ago when I was finishing graduate school.
1) Don’t even try to get published. There are some people in your class who will stop writing altogether. There are some who will only tangentially write. You will never stop writing, but don’t try to publish right now because your writing is still borderline terrible. Yes, you have an MFA but an MFA does not give you the heart, the will, the confidence, the patience or the skill you will need to Be a Writer. And, actually, your writing is not altogether atrocious, some of it (after many edits) will be beautiful, but for years it won’t be the right time for you to publish. Publishing requires the stars to align and you don’t have control of that. Even if I managed to get this message to you, you will still try to publish because you believe you could be the exception. You could be the one that encounters “success” out of graduate school.
Function as if you are not the exception. You are not special. Write. Explore. And.
2) Work on your mental health issues. This is as important, if not more so, than working on your writing and logging in your “10,000 hours.” You are a mess. You don’t know how to love. You are in a relationship but you are unable to trust. Your family back in New York is in shambles and you don’t know how to deal with them. You are full of anxiety, paranoia, resentment and sadness. You cannot be present inside your sentences or write with intention until you are fully present inside your own body.
You will spend years so afraid of failure that you will not put your heart and soul into your writing because it is safer that way. If you pay attention you will notice that you practice this kind of detachment with your relationships too. You are on guard at all times against potential hurt. But if you continue to live that way, behind your walls, afraid of rejection and abandonment, you will live a half-life and your sentences will be half-alive.
Learn to trust yourself. Learn to trust those who are deserving of your trust. Learn to trust that even if you do get hurt, you will be ok. Don’t be afraid. Your life and your writing will be bigger and full of love, I promise.
3) Read the writers who you’d like to be when you grow up.
You want to be Aimee Bender, Annie Dillard, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Samantha Hunt. You want to be smarter and more reckless and you want to regard the world as if anything is possible. Don’t read anything you don’t want to read. Stop trying to impress the imaginary literary masses with your reading lists. There isn’t time.
4) Read literary magazines and send your work to your favorites.
Instead, you will carpet bomb lit mags for years and you will get hundreds of rejections. You will feel dejected and lost and will convince yourself that you are an awful writer who has been kidding herself all these years. You will get so frustrated that you will try to write what you think people want to read. Stop it. Waste of time.
Like I said, stop trying to publish. Take the time to figure out what literary magazines, online or print, you enjoy. Read them for pleasure and subscribe to them.
In graduate school, you went to AWP and discovered Black Warrior Review. You loved it and subscribed to it for years. Seven years later they published one of your essays. You wrote the essay for them, and sent it only to them. You would have never done this fresh out of graduate school. You were too worried about TIME.
5) Forget about TIME and forget about OTHER PEOPLE. Forget about what you should have accomplished by now. Forget about how long it takes to write this essay or that novel. Do not compare yourself to anyone else. The race and the competition are imaginary. There is no race, there is no competition, and there is no rush.
You will meet writers with ten published novels who worry about the next one. You will meet accomplished writers who are seething with jealousy over other, more accomplished writers. You will meet writers who make you feel as if you are not a serious writer if you don’t have an agent or a novel. The writers who feel this way must be somehow damaged if they truly feel the need to feel superior to you. They are not. They are unhappy and unenlightened and they don’t matter. Get ahead of the game and just stop caring right now about other people and about timetables.
Instead, find joy inside of your every day. Find gratitude instead of self-pity. Take it as a given that you will never give up. An essay I wrote in graduate school, when I thought I was a shitty writer, ended up being published seven years later in The Weeklings. The publishing will come, eventually. Don’t wait for it, or hope for it, or hang your self-esteem on it.
What matters is the love you put into your work and the love you give to others and the love you graciously receive. The rest is nonsense.
6) Don’t even think about “building a platform” or “going to the right events” or “getting to know the right people.”
This isn’t you. You will never be able to do these things. Just be genuine and be yourself. You will spend years after graduate school, frozen and resentful, terrified of going to readings because readings bring out all your social anxiety and the inevitable comparing of yourself to other people. Heal your neurosis and from time to time, go to readings. Mostly everyone there will be happy to talk to you because they are just as neurotic and anxious as you are. Here is what you can say to people: “Hi. I’m Sara.” Then ask questions. It is fascinating to find out what people do, where they live, what they write, who they know. Don’t even talk about publishing. Talk about your life. You will be so afraid of people asking you about your publishing life but in truth that is a very personal question, just as personal as “Are you dating anyone?” or “How much are you getting paid at that job?” You don’t have to answer. Change the subject. Be inspired by other people’s words. You love listening to people tell stories, and you always have. That’s all a reading is.
7) You will be grateful for your MFA. It got you out of New York. It gave you structure and a work ethic and exposure to all sorts of crazy people, situations and art. It was what you needed at the time. Mostly, you will be grateful for California, this place that has healed you. Stop putting so much thought into whether you should leave or not. Stick around. Buy a comfortable pair of flip-flops.
8) Try to figure out what you need and give it to yourself without guilt. If you need a few days or weeks off writing, take it. If you need to power through, push yourself. If you need to isolate, go ahead. If you would benefit from interaction, push yourself to do so. Your needs can change from day-to-day. Give what you need to yourself when you can, and quit beating yourself up about it.
And you never need to listen to anyone’s advice, or live anyone else’s life. Figure out what works best for you.
9) I am glad you won’t know how much work you will put into your first novel only to set aside. It will be agony for you, this process of writing it. It is unlike any novel you have ever read. Writing it and piecing it together will be like pulling out your own eyeballs, but you love your characters and you love playing with the possibilities of what a novel can be. You will gain weight and be covered in stress rashes. After graduate school, for years, you will overhaul your little book countless times, and you will try and fail, over and over, to get it published. This will break your heart but it will be the best thing for you, because the worst has happened. You wrote a book, and it failed to be published, and now you go on. You will write another book and two novellas and stories and essays and you will do it because there are stories in you that you need to tell and you are listening.
You will let go of all your ideas of how your publishing career should go and you will feel freer and lighter than you have ever felt. You will learn good luck can come to you at any time. You will learn that you love writing just the way you did when you were a little girl, that you are lucky to be this thing—a writer—that makes life never-boring, that gives you access to entire new worlds and roads through your own heart.
You are lucky. Don’t worry so much. Keep going.
Sara Finnerty has essays and stories published in Black Warrior Review, Role Reboot, htmlgiant, The Rumpus, Frequencies, The Weeklings, Mutha Magazine, Jersey Devil Press and others. She is originally from Queens, NY and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she co-curates The Griffith Park Storytelling Series.