A little over two years ago, I was standing behind a podium in a tiny Episcopal church in North Carolina. My hands were shaking; my mouth was dry. I was a reading a story about people who live in the walls during the day and come out at night. The church was full of family, friends, and mentors.
It was my MFA thesis reading. I read for about ten minutes, which I’m pretty sure was the shortest of my class and possibly in program history. I read half the story — I remember looking at my watch and deciding, “You know, that’s enough. Let’s get to the fun part.”
Of course, epic after-reading party aside, I was more or less at the culmination of the “fun part.” Two years of writing and talking about writing and reading books and staying out way way too late and meeting interesting people and listening to brilliant authors come to read and getting occasionally brutal but usually generous advice from my peers and teachers. I’m halfway through my second master’s degree and although it’s been absolutely worth it, it doesn’t come close to my MFA program.
But, as I’ve said in the past, too many people think of the MFA as the doorway you step through to immediate writing success. And this is simply not the case. An MFA might help you develop. It might give you time and space to think about your craft. It will hopefully introduce you to lifelong friends and readers. But I’m pretty sure my degree didn’t come with a newly minted book deal.
Maybe it did; I should double check that folder they gave us.
And yet, I can hardly say that the last two years haven’t felt successful to me. First and foremost, I’ve been writing. In 2012, a lot. Two YA novels’ worth, in fact. In 2013, less, but still more than I think when I grumble about being unproductive. And even when I’m not writing much, what I am writing is challenging me.
Secondly, I’ve been submitting my work. Not a lot mind you, because I hate scattershot submissions. But enough. Because, thirdly, I’ve been finding homes for my stories. Good homes. Homes I like. Maybe not blockbuster homes, but I’m pretty sure magical realism doesn’t have much in the way of blockbuster publications. As I said last week, three out of four of my thesis stories have found their way into print. My goal was to get them all there by May of this year, and I’m not too far off target.
But I’ve also been learning a ton about writing and the writing process in general. The Mslexia competition was a big part of this. It was a fantastic contest to enter in general. Not only did making it to the longlist and shortlist give me a huge confidence boost; they were also incredible motivators to get things done (I’ll tell you that story another time). The gathering in London introduced me to industry professionals, it’s true. But it also introduced me to veteran writers — women who have persisted for years to get their work into print. And amazingly, encouragingly, many of them are doing that now.
I liked meeting the editors and agents, too. Most of them were remarkably nice people. I even sent the novels out to some of them. But the experience was the reward in this case. It reaffirmed for me how this is a profession that requires absolute patience. That there are immense benefits to doing things when you are ready and not simply at the first opportunity — because the first opportunity might not be the best one for you. This isn’t to say we should be timid, but rather self-aware. Less desperate. Devoted to the work, instead of the end result. Because if there’s anything I learned from my amazing fellow shortlisters, it’s that the devotion to the work will eventually pay off and sometimes in big ways.
It made me really embrace the accomplishment of getting as far as I did — and surviving my first big writing networking event. There will be more accomplishments as long as I keep at it. Some of those accomplishments will be the traditional, public sort. Some will be the kind only I will understand. But they’ll all be accomplishments. Sometimes we need external events to remind us of that, especially when the system frustrates or depresses us.
That said, I am going to write my fingers to the bone this year. Because there are stories to tell, my friends. And hopefully, some of them will find some success in the traditional sense.
Note: if you’re curious about where to find my fiction, I’ve added a “Recent Publications” page to this blog. If you’re not, it should be easy enough to ignore.