December 6, 2010

The Off Year (And, Just Maybe, A Few More)

With the semester coming to a close, one of the responsibilities of university faculty is to write letters of recommendation.  Over on the fabulous website, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, my old mentor Bill Roorbach has a new post up describing this period as “reference season.”  I have not had to write many of these letters, but of the ones I do, the majority are for students that are looking to enroll in MFA programs.  These are students that still have one semester left of their undergraduate studies, and they are pretty uncertain about what is going to happen next year.  Forget graduate school: with unemployment in double digits (don’t believe those “official” numbers), the big concern for about-to-graduates is earning a living and finding a way to not move back in with their parents.

This is not to say that students that have come to me about enrolling in MFA programs are half-assing it.  They aren’t.  They all are committed to writing, work on their stories and poems on the weekends when their friends are out drinking, read voraciously, and are involved in their undergraduate writing programs.  And they’re ready to continue that process.

So, they are a little disheartened when I suggest they not immediately go to grad school.

When I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I decided I wanted to be a writer.  I had no idea what this involved.  I signed up for an Intro to Fiction Writing class during my junior year, and decided that writing stories and reading books (read: English major) was a pretty awesome way to finish college.  When I graduated, I had never written a resume or gone to a job fair or been on an interview for a corporate or non-profit position.  This didn’t worry me in the least; I never thought about any of this, so how I could worry?  I was going to graduate school and I was going to be a writer.

Of course, I had no idea what this actually involved.

I went to my writing teachers and asked two things: what did you do and what should I do?  Lee Abbott, who worked for Home Depot and got married before going to an MFA program, said I shouldn’t go yet.  The aforementioned Bill Roorbach, who played rock and traveled Europe for a decade and then came back to the States and worked as a plumber, said I shouldn’t go yet.  Stephanie Grant, who did go straight to graduate school, said I shouldn’t go yet.  Melanie Rae Thon, who also went straight to graduate school, said I shouldn’t go yet.  Do something else, they said.  Live a little.

They didn’t mean to, but I felt, of course, insulted.  Didn’t they see that?  Twenty one years old, sitting in their offices, I felt like they didn’t take my desire to write seriously.  I felt they didn’t understand how important this was to me.  I applied to graduate school.  I got rejected by every single one.  I moved to Vermont with some idea of living somewhere gorgeous, working as a bartender at night, a writer by day.

And then I wrote virtually nothing for the next three years.

I’m exaggerating, but not by much. I revised my best story from undergraduate, a story that I have no memory of. I probably wrote two stories during those three years, both of which became my writing sample when I went to graduate school in 2003. Nothing about my life resembled being a writer; I wouldn’t even say I read much. I spent three years in Boston (digression: moving to Burlington, Vermont with no plan is, simply, a really bad idea; I moved to Boston in less than three months) and during that time, I went to zero readings, read no literary journals, rarely bought new books, and didn’t meet any writers. My last year in Boston, I lived in a house with a small nook on the second floor, just big enough for a desk and a bookshelf. It even had a window with a good view of a city park.  Down the street—literally a hundred yards away—was the public library.

I didn’t write at all.

What did happen? I got a job with a mutual fund company and worked forty hours a week.  I interviewed, got promoted, got a raise, got stuck in traffic. I received my first paycheck where the taxation was in triple digits. I moved three times. I went to the gym after work to lift weights and play basketball; I became a Celtics fan. I went to a lot of weddings, and every six weeks or so drove down to New Jersey to visit my family. I hung out with my best friend, who had also moved to Boston after he graduated Ohio State. I bought a car, maxed out a credit card. I watched a ton o’ movies. I dated, fell in love, broke up and got back together (mix, stir, serve, repeat!). I took all Sunday afternoon to read the paper. I drank coffee, went to bars, suffered brutal hangovers.

I can’t say that any of this improved my writing or made me a better person. I felt no despair or regret about my time in Boston. Within the first six months I lived there, Boston felt like home; it is a city that left an imprint on me in a way that no other city has. Further, I can’t say I figured anything out that was especially earth-shattering. There was nothing wrong with my life or the direction it was going back in 2003. There is nothing wrong with working and raising a family. People that say otherwise are the ones that write “MFA novels” and are pretentious and have spent their entire lives in academia and have no heart; their disdain drips from their stories. To paraphrase Zadie Smith, you have to be a better person to be a better writer. But I did figure this out: for me, and me only, this wasn’t the life I was going to live.

 

I don’t remember being scared, by any means, but I did figure out that the finance sector wasn’t for me. And though I wasn’t really working on it, I loved to write, I loved to read, and I could somehow, in some way, make a life out of that. So I did.

I can’t tell you what life in Boston did for me or why it pushed me in the direction it did. Perhaps I’m just refusing to figure it out (or refusing to divulge it) but I like a little bit of mystery about my life. I have no memory of signing up for my first creative writing class, no recollection of a feeling that it was a good idea.

I think the time off between undergraduate and graduate school is invaluable, and yet I don’t know how to explain this to an eager and determined young writer. I don’t know how to emphasize its importance, what it is that I can point to, like a craft element in a story, to show a college senior why the time away from school will improve you as a person, as a reader, as a writer, without sounding patronizing.

Here’s the another thing, just a little bit down the life-of-a-writer spectrum: a MFA program doesn’t make you a writer. I believed and understood what it meant to write not in graduate school, but after. I felt like a writer when I went through eight agonizing drafts of a story, one that I came back to again and again, changing point of view and setting and language and details and narration, working on it every morning until it was right. It wasn’t written for workshop. I figured it out on my own. This happened about a year after graduate school. The MFA is no coronation; graduation from a writing program is just a beginning, not an end (not even friggin’ close).

So. To all you graduating seniors, if you really and truly want to know what I think, it is this: take the year off. Take two. Take three. Take a decade. You’ll write. Or you won’t.  Or you’ll come back to it. Or you’ll find that you want to do something else entirely. You’ve been in school your entire life: get out of it for a while. I believe it will do you a tremendous amount of good.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.

About Michael

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. His writing has appeared in Boulevard, Epoch, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Kenyon Review, among others. His first story collection, STRATEGIES AGAINST EXTINCTION, is available on Queen's Ferry Press. Visit him online at mpnye.com

13 Responses to The Off Year (And, Just Maybe, A Few More)

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  2. Sara says:

    Yes, well. :/ This may well be just another “college senior applying to MFA programs being advised to take some time off” grumble, but I’d like to build on the momentum I have now. Maybe it’s the right time to, and maybe it isn’t, but I’m going to put myself out there and see what happens. I’m certainly open to living outside Writer-Land for a while—in fact, I’d like to—but I don’t know if I want to take that time now or not. There are a lot of things I want to do with my life, but writing is one of the two that arches over everything. The other is being an educator/education advocate in some capacity.

  3. Sarah says:

    As the sister-in-law of both a doctor and a lawyer, I suffer from occasional bouts of degree envy. I’m so glad you called attention to the fact that you didn’t feel like a writer until after grad school. Because – especially for recent graduates – society has a way of devaluing fine arts degrees, I think we all pressure ourselves to live our lives by titles. And without that MFA, how are we allowed to call ourselves “writers?” I too took time off before grad school, only I enjoyed the weddings and cars and hangovers and falling in love so much, I accidentally didn’t go back. In another life I’m positive I would have, but in this one I’ve found fantastic fulfillment writing every single day. No novels yet, but the added bit of perspective I earned has allowed me to call myself a writer with no hesitation. It’s not the right choice for everyone, but if you’re struggling to decide what to do, just remember that’s exactly what it is: a choice. Don’t be afraid of where you’ll end up if you open your mind to more possibilities to choose from. Sorry – “From which to choose.” ;)

  4. Michael says:

    @Sara: Hey, tell me to go to hell. People do it all the time. You write because you want to do that, and nothing else, and if now is the time go, then by all means go. But the thing is, it’s about so much more than momentum. It’s about the skull-drudgery of doing it every single day, and that’s where we get burnt out. Be careful of the writer/educator trap. I know far too many people who are now teaching and don’t seem to have any idea why they do it (let alone like it).

    @Sarah: Degree-envy I can handle. House-envy, when my non-artist friends were working and moving up and I wasn’t, that I had more trouble with. Or when people ask where they can read my work and I have to tell them that there are these things called “literary journals” and my stories are in the ones that are really hard to find! Letting go of that stuff is something that took me a long period to get to. Probably never goes away completely. And I’m okay with that.

  5. Patrick says:

    I finished my undergrad work in May of ’08 and took to wait. While I don’t know how I’d feel if I had immediately gone to grad school, but as it stands I am very happy to have waited. I agree that it is hard to put into words what life after school affords you (I decided to live in Hollywood and wrote nothing my first year). I feel the time away from writing, and from school, is like the time away from a manuscript–you just need to put some distance and gain perspective. I’m now in the process of apply to graduate programs more enthralled by writing than ever.
    For graduating seniors, it truly should be considered.

  6. Emily Camp says:

    It’s such an odd place to be though, because in taking time off – there’s this peculiar guilt that follows.

    I keep making these five year plans: live in Scotland, make candles, teach highschool, climb Kilamonjaro, do that France thing, & meanwhile, try to not get in debt.
    always in parentheses is: (Be practical, too.)
    I like the idea of being free for awhile and then practical and then academic.

    However, there seem to be seem to be such vacillating perspectives. What’s best? Some say – get to grad school asap. Others say – whoa, whoa, whoa. You say – eh, wait awhile.

    I say: it’s all a bit frightening.
    Sincerely,
    Another soon-to-be graduate

  7. Steve S says:

    My experience post-undergraduate experience was a lot like yours: wasn’t ready for grad progams (didn’t even apply, but would have been rejected had I done so), barely wrote for several years, then found I was “ready” and it was still something that drove me. The only major difference for me is that, like Sarah, I developed my writing in non-grad-school ways and discovered the MFA was an unnecessary luxury for me. It can work out pretty well either way.

  8. Sara says:

    @Michael: I would never tell you such a thing! But maybe I will tell you that I am applying to programs against your advice, have already paid the admissions fees and all that. A year or however many outside a degree program has its appeals, and it’s probably what will happen in my life, but I feel pretty driven to do what I’m trying to do.

    @Emily: “it’s all a bit frightening.” Yes.

  9. Justin Hamm says:

    That two or three year period to write and figure things out as a writer is really, really valuable. Once you’ve used it, you’ve used it, and later you may wish you had it back. I did my MFA — a three-year program — right out of undergrad. I wasn’t ready for it; thus, I didn’t get the full value of that time. Now that I’m starting to figure things out, it’s time I wish I had over again.

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  11. Traci says:

    I always knew I wanted to be a writer but was pushed into another course of study by well-meaning parents. Then came the job, a child, and one disaster after another. Sometimes I wrote, sometimes I didn’t, sometimes I read, sometimes I didn’t. Then I got the idea that after my son went to college I would go back to college for my MFA. Then I found a good low-residency program and decided not to wait. I’m having a blast! My writing is so much more mature and I take constructive criticism much better than I did before. Whether it is what I wanted or not, waiting for this moment has not only been worth it, but also to my advantage.

  12. Traci says:

    Oh, and Michael, I AM a bartender! I was a paralegal for ten years and hated it. Bartending is much more fun and it gives me the opportunity to work out my plot while mixing drinks.

  13. karl taro says:

    this is a good post. the other reason to take a few years off would be because you are such a fuck up in college that you don’t have the grades or professor recommendations to get into an mfa program. that’s what happened to me. the downside to this is that you may well never make it to an mfa program. that’s what is happening to me.