4. Reason #4 not to get an MFA: Timeframe
Some people write everyday. I don’t. I can’t. If I had to write everyday I think it would actually hinder my writing. Ideas come to me at very inopportune times. I’ve written on many an airplane air sickness bag, on subscription cards in magazines and on electricity bills. I don’t think I’ve ever opened a blank word doc in the hope that something would just pop into my head. I transcribe almost everything.
I technically started writing my novel 10 years ago. At the time I didn’t know I was writing a novel. I didn’t even know that I was a writer. I just wrote when things came to me and threw all of those things into a cardboard box in a corner of my apartment. Years later I’d revisit the box, then put it away again, then revisit it again, then put it away again. I’m confident that I could not have finished this novel 10 years ago. I’d like to think it’s because I’ve gotten more disciplined with age, but really, enough hadn’t happened yet for me to know where my novel was going. The more I lived, the more stories I heard and ideas I had, and all of those stories and ideas ultimately contributed to the finished product.
I know that many people don’t write like this. Some writers start with outlines, others sit down in front of a blank Word document and just go. But whatever your method, it’s unlikely that the journey will take exactly as long as you anticipate. Not getting an MFA gives you the flexibility to only write when you feel like writing. You could take a week or a year off and not feel pressured to hurry up and finish your work. Sometimes you need to put something in a drawer and write when you’re excited about it again. And it’s important to be excited, because when you’re excited about what you’re writing the reader can feel it.
All of the MFA grads I know produced something substantial in their two years. One produced a novel, another a short story collection. I assume that they all showed up at their respective schools mentally ready to tackle a project by the end of their two years (or maybe they just worked quickly). But I know that I would not have been one of those students. Normal life is what inspires my writing. What I hear myself and other people say in daily conversation. I don’t know if I would have had access to those tidbits if I had spent two-years in solitude.
I’d like to qualify the notion of working on a novel “for as long as it takes” with the importance of goal setting. A friend once said that goals without deadlines are daydreams, so once I had a real handle on my book, when all that was left for me to do was fill in the gaps and smooth out the edges, I made myself a deadline. My first deadline was my 30th birthday and I worked hard to meet it. But I fell short, so I gave myself an extension until New Year’s Eve, seven months later. I strongly encourage writers who aren’t in MFA programs to assign themselves deadlines. A birthday, a holiday, a trip. There are too many reasons to put goals off otherwise.
Tomorrow we’ll talk about my fifth and final reason for not getting an MFA: Pride.