What Will You Do With That? And Other Questions in the Post-MFA World
Today’s blog post comes from Alise Hamilton.
There had to be something at work in my subconscious when I left my MFA thesis on a table in the lobby after graduation. Although displaying a hard copy was optional, I had had it printed earlier that week using the last crumbs of my student loan money. One sided, no less. I had wanted the physical weight of the work to represent even a fraction of the emotional weight I felt. More than the diploma, which seems too pretentious to hang in my tiny, one bedroom apartment, I wanted the inky signatures of my advisors and of the program director—each of whom I had hounded throughout that week of my final residency: Please sign my thesis! Don’t forget to sign! But when all was said and done, out of Cambridge and driving on the highway to meet my family in the suburbs for a congratulatory dinner, I realized I had left it behind. My husband offered to turn back, but we were already late, my family sitting at the restaurant chewing bread, waiting for me to arrive.
“No, keep going. It’s alright,” I said, trying to convince myself that it was, in fact, okay. I am not a sentimental person, not with things, at least. It’s just paper, I thought, attempting to console myself with logic. Of course, as a writer, logical thinking has always held little appeal.
In terms of graduating, I lacked the “correct” emotions. People assumed I was happy and relieved to finally be finished. But of course I wasn’t done, I was just beginning my writing career. “You Did It!” greeting cards from my siblings sang. The sentiment was sweet, but stung at the same time. What have I done? To my mind, very little. The Holy Grail, The Book on The Shelf, still seems so far out of reach. And the pressure to succeed, mixed with the question marks of my future have continued to fill me with considerable anxiety.
In Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit, she talks about a meeting she had with her thesis advisor when Karr was competing her own low-residency MFA. “Count yourself lucky,” the advisor told Karr. “You’re still promising until your first book’s out.”
How long, I wonder, can one remain promising before others either give up on you, or, more likely, forget about you altogether? Some women have strong biological clocks. They turn soft and desperate at the sight of a stroller or baby shoes. I have a timer too, albeit a much different measurement. When I hear the National Book Awards announcements for 5 under 35, or The New Yorker 20 under 40, I feel a distinct tick-tock, tick-tock deep in my belly.
Perhaps I have expressed, for an artist, what appears to be an unbecoming amount of desire for success or recognition. And while I’m not ashamed to admit I would like readers, applause for the sake of applause is not what I am after. Having found what feels like a home with this strange, neurotic, eclectic, hilarious, interesting, grumpy, fabulous and, not to mention, dashingly good looking writer-tribe, I feel an obligation to be a contributing member. To do more than simply need: advice, moral support and pep talks, but to be able to give something back. An unpublished writer, however promising she may be, feels like she is standing outside the party with her nose pressed against the glass and her toes dug into the cold mud while, inside, the Writers-with-a-capital-W stand in close circles, sip wine, and share inside jokes.
Without my student status, and without a book to my name, I feel like an orphan with nothing but a pen and a stack of paper. Tribe-less. It wasn’t a lack of preparedness that kept me from wanting to exit my MFA program, from leaving that fat, Kinko’s bound thesis on the table: it was a lack of home.
There exists an inherent safety in being a student. People, that is, non-writers, understand grad school. They “get” homework and learning and making yourself better. But then you graduate and you still have your nose in those damn books. You’re still declining social invitations, preferring to stay home and write. You’re a writer, but what have you written? Those eight most dreaded words for any recent MFA grad: And what are you going to do now?
And yet one of the most common questions for MFA grads, the one asked by other writers is perhaps even more annoying: Are you still writing?
Am I still writing? Of course I am writing! I find the notion that I would suddenly stop just because I don’t have someone looking over my shoulder offensive. It’s like that old atheist joke: “Without god, what’s to stop you from murdering and raping and stealing all you want?” The atheist answers: “I do murder, rape and steal all I want. And the amount I want to murder, rape and steal is zero.” I don’t need anyone watching over me to make sure I write. I’ve been writing long before the MFA, and I don’t see any reason why I would stop now, all of a sudden. Writing is one of my few sure things in this world. Writing is the relief.
I am not naïve. A book is far from salvation. A book brings it’s own insecurities, its own problems and challenges and crises of identity. In my paying job, I manage the second oldest bookstore in the country and am responsible for the author events in four independent bookstores in Massachusetts. I know that published books are often nothing more than small blips, how quickly so many books go out of print, and how returned books are pulped into Chem Lawn. I see the dizzying amount of titles published, as opposed to the handful that receive any amount of real notice. I spend lots of time massaging the egos of difficult authors—the ones that feel like they deserve more attention, more prestige. The ones that have not fulfilled the hopes they had for themselves and their work, or perhaps they feel the world has unfairly ignored them, too dull to see their obvious brilliance. Customers, on a daily basis, share their predictions for the collapse of bookstores entirely.
At a Boston publishing cocktail party, a suited super-editor from New York throws back his beer and tells me, “Better get an agent. We’ll eat you alive.”
Despite this, I believe in this business. For every high-maintenance author, there are five others who are gracious and inspiring, and whose experience and encouragement I soak up hungrily. The customers that come in and take a deep breath of books and announce how much better they feel, just being in the store. And the books that I love, I fight against Chem Lawn fate, hand-selling with a vengeance, making sure as many copies as possible get to just the right readers.
So, as I take stacks of books and flip to title pages for authors signing stock, I do my best to remember patience, patience. I try to remember that even though no one sees me working, even though no one sees me with my shoulders growing tense and knotty as I bend over my laptop and my books, that work still counts.
MFA programs sell themselves, in part, by offering community. This is not false advertising: a rich and vibrate community exists. Is it possible for a recent grad to not feel, at least in part, thrown out of the nest? The constant inquiry—Have you found a writing group? Do you have people that will read your work?— rings like a kinder version of, Why don’t you run off and find someone to play with? It sends me straight back to my elementary school days when my family moved from New York to Florida to Massachusetts in just ten years, my mother asking, Did you make any friends? Have you found your group?
As luck would have it, I do think I have found a group. I count myself fortunate to have so many bookish folk in my life—friends, writing groupies, readers, mentors, fellow booksellers—and patient ones at that, as I am chronically prone to late-night bouts of panic and doubt.
I have support and drive and, really, there is not much more a writer needs (other than coffee, time, whiskey and muses). But I also have sadness and fear—and that’s okay, too. Endings are hard, transitions are weird, and absolutely no one said it was going to be easy.
Alise Hamilton is a graduate of Lesley University’s low-residency MFA program. Currently, she manages Andover Bookstore, the second oldest independent bookstore in the country. You can follow her on twitter at @AliseHamilton.