Just back from my third AWP. Haven’t had anything new published since the last time. Haven’t really even written much of anything new. Haven’t got a deal or an agent. Haven’t finished my story collection or my couple of novel starts. Haven’t gotten a more writer-y job since finally earning my MFA. Feels like I haven’t done much. Feels like, in ways, I didn’t really belong there. I’ve been working on this writing thing for a while. Some stories I’m working on, I’ve been working on for ten years. Feels like I’m rotting on the vine. I’m an old, old baby writer. It’s time to do something. It’s been time to do something for a long time.

A fellow MFA-er once told me some great things about myself as a writer, but, she warned me, “Your biggest problem is going to be your lack of self-confidence.” I probably nodded. I knew she was right. But it was an easy thing right? To fix? I just had to write as well as I could, let things happen, and based on that, based on success and praise, either my confidence would raise, level-out to healthy amounts, or it wouldn’t matter, because I had succeeded despite it.

I haven’t had as many stories as I’d like placed, but I have had some published, I’ve even won some contests, but I never remember that when I’m writing and believing that every word is crap. I try to line up the good things, including great rejections, conference and residency waitlists, and so importantly, the wonderful things other writers have said. Most of the time it doesn’t make me feel better.

The thing I was so naive about was that I thought I could still write well thinking I was crap at it, and thinking I was crap in general. I tinker, but I think I only half ass everything, because I don’t trust myself. Overwhelmed with decisions on how to proceed with a story, I kind of overstimulate myself trying to think of the million ways a story could be written, a million ways the story could shoot off, sure that whatever I chose was going to be the wrong choice.

I know this is happening, but I don’t know how to stop it. I know lack of self-confidence is a deep problem for me, I haven’t learned how to compensate for it, and I don’t know how to get some. I really don’t even know it’s it possible to get a nice healthy core of self-confidence, when you’ve gone 38 years born, raised, and grown up without it.

I’m just trying to be conscious about it.

Just trying to admit it.

To talk about it.

Writing is lonely enough. Walking through AWP alone, not knowing how to talk to people, not feeling like I have anything recent to show for myself is lonely, and its embarrassing. There are so many writers out there. Why should anyone care about me if I don’t care about myself?

A couple of weeks ago I was taking a quick shower before my son got home from school. Underneath the sounds of the bathroom fan and the water gushing out of the shower-head and tapping every surface of the wall and tub, I heard a yelp or a sob.

My first thought was that something was wrong with my boyfriend downstairs. Maybe someone broke into the house and was holding him hostage. Maybe he got bad news over a text message. Someone died maybe. Or he was having some kind of medical emergency. I should go down there and check on him.

I peeled back the shower curtain. All I had was a teeny, tiny towel that wasn’t going to cover me. I’d go down there soaking and dripping, while constantly re-adjusting my little towel.

The image had me captured.

When I put my head back in the shower, I was writing a scene. I was working it out. What would the girl with the tiny towel encounter down the stairs? Would she walk into drawn guns? How would the bad guys react to her state of dress? Would they make her take the towel off. Would they ogle or even rape her in front of her boyfriend? Or would they be embarrassed and tell her to go get dressed, “but please don’t call the cops.” And what if she did call the cops while she was getting dressed, would that mean that the bad guys should have just hurt her? What kind of message would that send out to the bad guys of the world?

What if, instead, the girl walked down and saw her boyfriend flat on the floor. Would she preform CPR? As the towel fell would she struggle to voice dial 911, naked? When the EMT’s showed up what would they think? What would they say? Would one of them grab her a bigger towel?

Maybe the boyfriend got a phone call that his father died. What then? Would he be too stricken to notice his girlfriend’s state? Or would he tug the towel off? Maybe he’d want her body to take his mind off of grief, or maybe he would stare at her nakedness, her vulnerability, her soft-skinned mortality.

So…I did not actually, in reality, check on my boyfriend and that is how I know I’m a writer.

Whenever I’m crossing a street and oncoming cars roll up and stop at the crosswalk, I imagine them not stopping. How would that feel, bone by bone? What would my crumpling look like? What would the reaction of the driver be? The reaction of the bystanders?

Standing outside of my house at night, a dark car streams its headlights, turning into the street way too fast. What if they squealed to a stop in front of my house? What if four men cascaded out of the car, guns drawn? What if they shot me down, leaped back in the car, and drove off?

This is not paranoia. It’s imagination. I rarely consider these scenarios with fear. I think of myself in third person. It’s a dispassionate curiosity about what would or could happen, the sensory details, as well as the implications and consequences of the event, scenario, scene.

And that’s the thing, in the life of a writer…everything that happens to us or someone we know has the potential to be a scene or story. Nothing’s really sacred, you know, because everything is.

I finally have it! An office! A room to call my own.

It is important. My boyfriend, love of my life, lives in my bedroom now,our bedroom, with his music, his television shows, his, you know, breathing. And my son, well, he is all over the place. He wears the house like a shoe. And my sister lives with us too. Her energy is loud, in all directions. I am easily distracted. Easily unfocused.

But I have a room now. My very own room! An office. And it is a mess. Ok, so my boyfriend’s clothes are all over the floor, and the closet is stocked with musical instruments I feel guilty about not playing. The bookshelf is full of books I haven’t read or re-read. And the desk, so messy, sliding piles of old mail, half filled notebooks huddling in a stack together for warmth. I have more pens than an office supply store. Folders bursting with old workshopped stories, full of the best intentioned, but often confusing, chicken scratch. I have a whole box of Bob Dylan CDs, the ones with the cheesiest covers have been beckoning me for some time.

It is quiet in my room. I have my favorite things here. A mirror box bought at a pre-school auction. A print of a painting I bought at a festival. An award certificate on the wall. Disney mementoes. A bright, dried flower wreath from The Renaissance Faire. Old lit mags quietly harboring my few published stories.

I can do anything I want with this room.

I can do anything I want in this room.

I can rest with a book on a giant pillow on the floor.

I can read my stories out loud to myself so I can hear them. I can even read the bad words, and the drinking, and the sex, which is really important for the kinds of things I write.

I can listen to terrible music, if that will help me know my characters better, or if it will make me feel sassy. I can feel sassy here!

I have an office chair, burgundy, and abandoned by people who wanted something shiny, new, and unbroken. I don’t mind used things, half-broken things. I guess I can relate.

I might not be able to get into a writing residency right now, might not be able to jet off to some writing conference, life might be complicated, messy, raucous, but I have a room, my own place,for thinking, for writing and no one, no one, no one else can come in without knocking.

Dear Reader,

I’ve been a writer since I was a tiny weird kid naming crayons and prancing them around my grandmother’s kitchen counter because I hadn’t brought any Barbie dolls.

After my mother’s yelling fits, I would sit alone on my bedroom carpet, curtains drawn, with an empty Happy Meal bucket. I was a girl who lived alone in the woods, and I was cooking up fish stew in my pot for sustenance. I was a survivor.

I was a writer.

My imagination was unbridled.

In the fifth grade, my class was given an assignment to write a story that had to include a set of specific words. I don’t remember what the words were. I think one of them was “key.” A week or so later, the teacher told us she wanted to read one of the stories aloud because it was so good, or something like that. It was mine. I was shocked, and fucking terrified, because I was painfully shy. The only thing I remember about the story and about why the teacher had chosen it was the first line, “It all happened when…”

Ok. Somehow through all my voracious, yet haphazard reading I learned how to drop a reader into a story, but when I tried to write stories later that year, and for years later, they were awkward, embarrassing things. I haven’t kept any of it. I was bold minded, young, self-conscious, precocious, lacking self-esteem, and I was trying too hard to sound like a “real writer.” It was horrible.

I gave up for awhile, started crocheting giant granny squares.

Then one day, late middle school or early high school, I was failing at writing a letter, and my father gave me the most important writing advice of my life, “just write it like you’d say it.”

So I did, in that letter, and in the stories I tried my hand at after. It was easier to write in my voice, than to force my story’s language into some strange amalgamation of all the authors I had read. Of course I wouldn’t have explained it like that then. And I had no idea how important that advice would be, nor how much it would come to shape and define me as a writer.

My dad’s simple advice made me a writer who gravitates toward narratives and narrators with strong voices, a writer who writes in first person most of the time. And when I get stuck what do I do? I read my story out loud or I start talking to myself about it.

I was developing and growing my voice years before I knew that’s what I was doing. All I knew was that writing was easier that way. Writing became as fun as using my Barbies to come up with new episodes of Three’s Company.

I will be forever grateful to my dad for helping to shape me as a writer, even if does write terrible letters.

I guess there has been a little post-MFA depression. 

I swear it’s a real thing. 

You finish, finally finish this almost-accomplishment that’s been looming over your head for years, sneering at you. You finish it. You get your diploma, your hood, your hug from the head of the program. You tell that almost-accomplishment creep looming over your head, “I have defeated you! You are hereby banished!” You make plans, a strategy. This is how I’m going to cobble together a writing career. 

And then you go back to your job at Starbucks, realizing that you don’t have any real-world, paid experience doing anything else. You are the single mom of an awesome kid, who happens to be on the autism spectrum. You can’t take the chances you used to be able to. You need to work. Even if you’re not making enough money. You need even that little bit. You need the health insurance. You can’t work two or three jobs to get ahead, because your kid needs you around, and he needs your extra help if he has a chance to grow up being able to take care of himself, and leading a life that makes him happy. 

So you work this job that was only ever meant to keep you from starving your fist time round at grad school. You work this job that doesn’t really make ends meet. You work this job that is most days, mindless, and un-fulfilling, this job where complete strangers are constantly making judgements about you. You work it, and you feel like crap about yourself because you aren’t living anywhere close to your potential. You’re not being challenged, and your skills and passions are not being utilized. What if they atrophy? But you don’t know what else to do. You just don’t know, because you don’t have any experience and it’s so competitive out there for MFA Creative Writing grads. You haven’t found anyone out there who will hire you. 

But you try to do your work. You try to perfect your craft still, and you keep looking for jobs, residencies, opportunities. You sometimes come close, but not close enough and your life still trudges on, the same. How can you not lose hope? 

And if you lose hope, how do you keep the dream?

I found out yesterday that in January my dad will be retiring. He’s in his early mid-sixties. I always forgot how old he is exactly. It does make me sad. Getting older myself is one thing, but I don’t want him to get older. He’s retiring because he’s tired. I don’t want him to be tired. Of course it makes me think about the eventual death of my parents, but also I wonder…I think back over all these years he’s worked pounding away at keyboards and I wonder if any of it made him actually happy. I wonder if he had the life experiences he wanted to have. I wonder if it was fulfilling. I wonder what he thinks about when he thinks back over all those years in all those various offices. It’s such a large chunk of life. 

My dad, he hasn’t saved. He’s not going to spend any part of retirement traveling or taking classes or re-building old cars. Most likely he’ll do what he does on the weekends: sit on the couch watching sci-fi and action movies and fighting with my mom. I want so much more for him than that, but it really does seem like he reached the end of the road of dreams and adventure a long time ago. There used to be possibility. Now there’s the sofa, the dog, and take-out.

I have not reached the end of possibility. Not because of my 37 years. Not because of my desire. It’s a harsh-ass world. I have to keep fighting uphill against the wind, and most of the time I feel so weak, so malnourished, so on the brink of collapse. I have to fight even if I can’t see around the corner, even if there is nothing around the corner, because in the end, at least I will know that I fought, that I did everything I could. 

So the question is, am I? Am I doing everything I can? How on earth do I balance having to kick myself to try harder, to write more, to get a better job, to be a better mom, to get less sleep with giving myself a break and letting myself cry in the bathroom or sleep in sometimes on Sundays so I don’t jump off a bridge from all the pressure?

While at my last residency at Queen’s I had this master plan for my post-graduation, trying to build a writing career life. 

First I was going to write fifty pages of a novel. 

Secondly I was going to go through all the stories in my collection, one by one, however long it took, make them awesome, and submit them around until I got a few in recognized/recognizable magazines.

The third part of the plan, was of course to query agents and work on getting my collection published. And while I was waiting to hear back from them, I would dig out the fifty pages of my novel and complete a first draft. 

Ah…goals!

So the funny thing is, I did not have that much trouble with the first part of my plan. I have a kid, and a job, and a busy, exhausting life, so I set a tiny goal for myself. At first it was only 250 words a day. Practically nothing. It usually took me less than ten minutes to do that. It seemed like such an insignificant amount until I realized that 250 words a day adds up, 0 words a day does not. After awhile I increased the amount to 500 words a day. Then I got to about twenty pages and realized I was bored, and wasn’t connecting with the path I had chosen in the narrative. So I got rid of at least ten pages, and started again. And it was working. Some days I even wrote 750-1000 words. Some days were easy, some days were hard, but I managed to write nearly every day, even through a Disney World vacation, and in the end it took like a month and a half to get to my fifty pages. 

Yay!

Celebration! I bought Neil Gaiman’s new book, read it in two days. Ecstatic. High on words!

Then part two of the plan. Ugh.

It sometimes takes years for me to complete a story, because the whole editing/re-vising thing is hard for me, tedious. I kind of hate it, and have a hard time showing up to get the work done, except in tiny spurts of inspiration. I have not had much luck with part two of my plan. 

My thesis reader at Queens, helped diagnose me with writer’s ADD. I get so excited by new ideas, I drop what I working on, leaving it unfinished, and follow the shiny new idea, until I get bored with it, and chase a new one. 

I am trying to conentrate on one story at a time. It’s hard to keep my focus. But when I was working on generating writing, it was simple to create a word goal however small. This doesn’t work with re-vising. I don’t know how to create little bite-sized daily goals that will keep me going. I suppose I could do time goals, or goal goals, where I come up with what I specifically want to work on or accomplish that day. I wish those type of goals were as satisfying as creating chunks of whole new text that opens up a world that is starting to bloom in my mind.

Perhaps I just need to find the right way to think about editing and re-vision. I may not be creating, but I am re-shaping, defining. I’m not birthing a baby. Maybe it isn’t as exciting as that, but I am parenting, learning how to raise the story perhaps, how to turn it into the best, most true-to-itself story it can be. 

Ugh. Like I said. Tedious. Miserable. Hard. But I always knew this was going to be the most grueling part of my plan. At least the most difficult part I have any control over. But I also have the feeling that once I figure it out, once I really stick to one story and see it through, that it will break something open for me, and the next one will be easier. 

It was a long road.

After I finally graduated with my BA, I applied right away to one grad school. I wanted to go somewhere great, somewhere that would take me away from San Francisco to a bigger city, somewhere that didn’t require the GRE as part of the application, so I sent my package to The New School, and I got in.

I wish I would have understood then, really how miraculous that was.

The New School was great. Even though I’ll probably never be able to pay my loans off, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. I got to work with some amazing writer/instructors, and I met some amazing students/writers. Life in New York City was big, and scary, limitless. I was starving, but I got to starve across the street from The Federal Reserve. I couldn’t always afford books, but I got to see some of my favorite writers. I got to meet Jonathan Carroll, and I got to stalk my favorite musician of the time, catching something like seven of his shows in six months. Who cares about nutrition when you have that kind of access.

The only thing was after four semesters, I wasn’t quite ready to turn in my thesis, which in the end didn’t really matter, because I had an outstanding bill and I wouldn’t have been allowed to graduate.

I went home to California after my four semesters, and it took me something like two or three years to pay off my balance to the school.

Depression. Boredom. Restlessness. Disappointment. I stuck with my Starbucks job, and I had a kid, I moved to North Carolina, I didn’t think I would ever get my MFA.

I had dreams about it. Dreams about being back in New York. Dreams about going back to school. But my son was never with me in those dreams. And when I woke up, I felt unfinished, but I knew those dreams were impossible to complete.

A couple of years ago I decided to apply to UNCG. That was my solution. I sent my best stuff. Sat through the GRE. Secured some amazing letters of recommendation from some recognizable and impressive writers (who are also really great people) and I thought I was set. How could they say no. But they did. They said no and I was crushed.

Then a few months later, I shot an email to the wonderfuls at the low-residency program at Queens University of Charlotte, just to see if they’d take some of the credits I earned at the New School. Somehow they would, and they had an unexpected opening for the residency a month from then. I sent an application, a bunch of stories, and in a day, got in.

It was awkward that residency. I was a first semester student, but also a third semester student. I had to explain.

“I transferred.”

“Cool, where from?”

Sometimes people didn’t know what The New School was, and sometimes their eyes got big. One person even said, “Oh you mean a real school.”

I met quite a few people at Queens who seemed to think that maybe it wasn’t as good as other schools. That is complete bullshit.

Of course a low-residency had become the best choice for me if I couldn’t get into a program right next to my house. I couldn’t pack up my son, and go to just-any-city. New York was out of the question. A lot of places were. So that’s why I was thinking about going low-res, but anyone who thinks that equals a lesser education or a lesser experience has no idea what they’re talking about.

I wrote more stories in one year at Queens, than I did in two years at The New School. The workshops are smaller so you get more and deeper attention from the instructors. And the instructors? They are just as talented, awarded, recognizable and awesome as the ones in any New York program.

Don’t even get me started about the administrators. Queens cares, and they will help you as much as they can. I never felt like a number. I never felt there like I was purchasing a degree, or that I was just another hopeful, with a dollar sign for a head, being cranked out of the MFA machine.

I wanted to get my degree as fast as I could, and I had earned all those credits, but if there’s one thing I regret about Queens, it’s that it went so fast.

I graduated this year, end of May. I have a completed thesis, that I’m working on turning into a collection. I have friends. I have all this anxiety. I’ve read books I didn’t know existed. I grew in ways I didn’t know were possible. I know myself as a writer better, and I have my MFA.

I am a big girl now.

Maybe not complete.

I don’t know how I ever could be.

But I do feel, that even though I’m a long way to where I want to go as a writer, I finally feel as if my feet are on the right road, and that it’s a good season for walking.

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