My essay “Into The Woods,” excerpted from a collection edited by Chad Harbach called MFA vs NYC, was posted last week on Medium. This happened because I insisted that the essay be published somewhere besides in the collection; it’s the only formally structured and edited piece of first-person writing I’ve produced in the last four years and I wanted to make sure people read it. During the six months I spent writing it and then the time I spent on final revisions prior to the book’s production deadline a year later, my life changed dramatically. Writing the essay was part of that change.
I didn’t feel, as I felt with some of the essays in ATHSW, that I was exorcising something by writing, and I didn’t feel, as I did with Friendship, that I was initiating something by writing, inviting something in. Instead I felt almost the same way I do when I force myself to do some kind of organizational task or rote exercise that doesn’t come naturally to me, like figuring out how to make an Excel spreadsheet. Writing this essay felt like learning, like forcing myself to learn. I feel less like change happened to me and more like I changed myself.
One of the most crucial changes is that since January 2013 I’ve been working full-time in an office (two different offices, but the same one since July.) A few weeks ago I took the day off work and went up to New Hampshire to speak to an undergraduate creative writing class at Southern New Hampshire University.
It was a freewheeling discussion of fiction and I’m sure I said a lot of nonsensical things about how writing fiction is best accomplished, but I did think I was useful as an emissary of “how New York works and how different publishing models work and how to think of your career in terms of money.” Being the foremost expert on this stuff that many of these students had ever encountered felt like a big responsibility. I did the best I could. And then afterwards a student emailed me (I’d told the students to feel free to email me.)
Her email was great and very honest. She said she was worried about not being able to make a living as a writer, and her own worrying-prone nature would prevent her from taking the leaps of faith necessary to leading the life she thinks she wants. She wanted to know whether I thought getting an MFA or working in publishing would help her get better at writing and/or help her get published.
This is the letter I wrote back.
I am pretty proud of the advice I gave her. I am trying to take it myself. Some days, I succeed.