When being a writer and MFA doesn’t turn out the way you expected or hoped

by LISA LEVAD

Writers are often asked “are you published?” but rarely asked “do you love what you write?”

I found myself awash in embarrassment answering the first question.  I convinced myself that publication placed a Seal of Legitimacy on my identity as a writer, and imagined people dismissing me as an imposter as I stumbled around the ‘no.’

My unpublished state was not for lack of trying.  I maintained logs of books I enjoyed, along with their authors, agents, and publishers.  I analyzed Literary Littles for patterns in writing styles.  I read Poets & Writers, subscribed to Writer’s Digest, attended Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, and purchased The Writer’s Market.  I work-shopped, networked, earned an MFA, entered contests, sent out cover letters, and submitted to any publisher that accepted unsolicited manuscripts.  No, I wasn’t unpublished because I hadn’t tried.  I remained unpublished because I did not love my own writing.

The fact was, I could not face my novel.  I could not say if it was well written or not, because I could not bring myself to approach it for revision.   Bewildered by this aversion to my manuscript, I likened it to the discomfort experienced when listening to a recording of my own voice.  Lack of external validation supported my belief that I was a fraud.  I settled on earning a living and allowed the demands of teaching be my excuse for not writing.

Except, I was not not writing.

In my profession I regularly witnessed injustice, and writing was the only way I knew to quell the inner commentary of emotional outrage.  All I demanded of my words were that they accurately express my heartache.  I found revision to be a joy, not a revulsion.  I took pride in phrases that pleased me and satisfaction in rewording sentences that did not.   The metric by which I evaluated my work shifted from an artificial construct I imagined to be marketable to fulfilling my personal need for self expression.  When a piece exposed the truth of my heart, I fell in love with my writing.

I write for personal satisfaction.  My reward comes from the pride I feel when I coax words into recreating my emotional landscape.  Detached from expectations around publication, I allow myself to play with literary elements with a childish abandon.  I have fun with writing.  Me and Writing go off and find one of those obsolete metal merry-go-rounds from the 70s and spin around together for hours.  We don’t care how our hair looks all whipped up, tangled in the wind or what time we’re supposed to come in for dinner.  We just want to see how fast we can twirl and how hard we can laugh.

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg observed “It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice.”  I find my best writing manifests when I write every day.  This habit electrifies the current between the voice in my mind and the pen in my hand.

I wanted to activate that energy for myself every day of the year, and imagined what it would be like if I woke up each morning to a text message containing an invitation to write.  From this vision, my husband and I created The Writing Prompt Machine, a service that sends subscribers a daily writing prompt though text message or email.

The purpose of the project was to create a tool to support my personal daily writing practice.  To that end I crafted each prompt to meet my own personal satisfaction.  As the endeavor began to take form and shape, I saw in my mind’s eye other people receiving prompts and feeling supported in their own daily writing practice.  I saw writers enthusiastically completing short stories, plays, and poems.  I saw writers winning awards for pieces inspired by ideas seeded by my prompts received as text messages.  Excitement coursed through me, energized by the possibility that this project could support other writers in strengthening daily writing habits.  I am proud to share this service, because as with my writing, personal fulfillment is the standard I am using to evaluate the final my product.  Each day I am thrilled when I receive my text message stimulating me to take a few minutes out of my day, for play.

Lisa Levad earned her MFA from Goddard College in Vermont at the turn of the century. She is the creator of www.autowritingprompt.com, a service supporting writers in developing a daily writing habit. A modern day nomad, Lisa lives in a yurt and travels the country working on the renaissance festival circuit.”

Writers can now enjoy 21 days of Lisa’s prompting service absolutely free by pointing their browser to www.autowritingprompt.com.  Released early in the morning, each writing prompt will be ready when you are.