You Are a Young Writer
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
You are a young writer about to graduate with an undergraduate degree. You enjoy writing, you enjoy reading, and you even enjoy not yet knowing the Who or the When or the Where of What’s Next.
One afternoon while talking with a professor, friend, or mentor about your excitement about not knowing What’s Next, you for the first time hear about MFA.
MFA sounds like everything you never thought could ever happen in the same place happening in the same place.
I’ll put you two in touch, says your professor, friend, or mentor.
You get a drink with MFA.
MFA says, Time to Write, Writers to Study Under and With, Many Ways of Thinking and Feeling and Making with Craft, Deadlines and Discipline, Writer Friends You’ll Have for Life.
MFA is dreamy, and the more MFA talks the dreamier MFA becomes, but there’s a practical you inside you that you have lately been encouraged to develop, and somewhat against your will, this you prompts you to ask, And then?
And then you write or you don’t, says MFA. Or you both.
You finish your beer thoughtfully.
Someone asks MFA if MFA wants to play darts. MFA does.
You start to ask a question, but MFA says, I’m terminal.
You apply to a number of MFAs.
You are rejected by a number of MFAs, and waitlisted by one, and offered partial aid by another, and by another you are offered a full tuition fellowship in exchange for teaching and hot damn does this offer has you feeling on top of things you didn’t know had tops to feel on top of. You move to the state the school is in. Classes start: you read recklessly and you write ravenously, you write in forms and in modes that are new to you, and you’re astonished, and you for the first time teach, you’re a student with students, and you make friends with your fellow writers, friends from the East Coast and the West Coast and the Southwest and the South and the Midwest, you’re from the Midwest, with your Midwestern friends you disagree on what constitutes the Midwest, and with everyone else you altogether disagree on what constitutes writing and poetry and story and essay and art, and constitution, and you attend and give readings, and you work for a literary magazine, and on funding you travel to conferences, and you play pool and darts and poker and you drink beers and boozes and smoke cigarettes and cigars and you do some drugs maybe and you love, you love hard, you love the friends you share so much with, and yes, you make some rather wretched mistakes, some shameful blunders, and maybe there’s some rivalry and jealousy but you stay away from the circles of spite, the circles that spin on the talk that sinks community, and instead you write, and in your last year you write a book.
You are a young writer about to graduate with a graduate degree.
You say to MFA, And now?
MFA is busy with someone else who is buying MFA a drink.
You wait. The place gets crowded. It gets a little late.
You begin to say something to MFA but MFA says, I AM TERMINAL, and you begin to respond but MFA says, TERMINAL, and you stop.
MFA bar-whispers, WRITE.
You submit your book to contests, presses, and agents. You read and submit to literary magazines, where you find a lot of work you really love.
You wait to hear back about your book.
It’s not a very good book, you think, but you’re sure you’ll be someday glad you wrote it, you hope, possibly.
Your significant other gets a good job at a small university in a small town somewhere far away from where you both grew up. You move with your significant other. You liked teaching when you were with MFA, so you adjunct, you adjunct at more than one university for less money and benefits than when you were teaching with MFA.
You’re not as good at teaching as you remember.
You get a beer with Adjuncting.
Adjuncting says, If you look for reasons to be bitter, you’ll find them wherever you look. Don’t look.
Your book is rejected.
It’s not a very good book, you say to Adjuncting. But I’m glad I wrote it.
Adjuncting gets drunk.
Adjuncting says, Look for reasons to be bitter! Find them everywhere! I can’t pay this tab!
Things get lousy with your significant other.
Some of the pieces you send to literary magazines get accepted. These pieces are very different from the pieces in your rejected book.
You take pedagogy workshops at one of the universities you’re teaching at and you get better at teaching.
You wonder what What’s Next is doing.
You wonder what it would be like to have a salary.
You wonder what it would be like to live where you’ve always wanted to live.
Your little brother, who has a salary and lives in Chicago, takes his girlfriend on a trip to Hawaii. You used to fart on your little brother’s head.
You are active in the communities of the universities you teach at. You show up and you volunteer and you participate, and you mean it.
You teach Creative Writing classes and with every one get better at teaching.
You apply for full-time visiting and tenure track positions. You don’t have a book. You don’t get close to getting interviews.
You visit your MFA writer friends. One friend is adjuncting in the town in which you got your MFA, and one is a copyeditor in Chicago and is getting married, and one runs a Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe and is having a baby, and one works for a non-profit in DC that promotes healthcare through the arts, and one is getting a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing.
“I’ll put you two in touch,” says this friend.
You get a scotch with PhD.
PhD says, Time to Write, which might mean even more to you now, and Writers to Study Under and With, which if that means less you might try something else, and Deadlines and Discipline, helpful, very helpful, and Writer Friends, beyond value, and a Better Chance at a Full-Time Teaching Position, Probably.
You ask, And then?
You get the job or you don’t, says PhD. Not both.
You start to say something but PhD says, with air quotes, MFA is “terminal.”
You finish your scotch thoughtfully.
And maybe you apply.
And maybe you’re offered a full tuition teaching fellowship, and you accept, and you move away from your significant other to the city PhD is in, and you read recklessly and you write ravenously, and you love hard, and whether or not you feel like a young writer you spur, joke, and bite yourself into making the most of the many things that PhD puts before you, meaning, yes, the literature and theory and professionalization courses you maybe never took with MFA, but even more than that, your work, and one morning it comes to you that PhD isn’t MFA on Steroids or MFA on Crack or MFA on top of your significant other that time you walked into the bedroom after coming home from a canceled flight, no, it’s none of those things but it is heavier, or older, or denser, and maybe you can lift it over the circles of spite and carry it through to the end of the first year, where with the help of the summer, you finish a new book.
And maybe at PhD you feel on top of things you didn’t think you’d ever feel on top of again, meaning, your work.
And maybe at PhD you feel as if you’re standing at some dark bleak bridge, emptying your messenger bag into the mouth of a troll.
And maybe at PhD you feel like a clown whose every footstep is a fart on your own head.
And maybe at PhD you try to get ahold of What’s Next, but What’s Next is busy, and a new professor, friend, or mentor says, I’ll put you two in touch, and it happens, you get a coffee in a crowded coffee shop with What’s Next, but What’s Next won’t look at you, What’s Next just stares over your shoulder, and you yell, Do I get my PhD and get a position somewhere or do I get my PhD and never get a position anywhere and get some other job somewhere or does a position open at one of the schools I adjuncted at and I get it and then it ends and it’s back to what I just said or do I get a book published and if I get a book published do I need my PhD!
No one in the coffee shop reacts to your yelling. Not even you.
You feel done, but you know you aren’t.
What’s Next? says What’s Next, not looking at you.
You drink your coffee. You don’t know.
You say, You don’t know.
What’s Next says, You are a young writer. Write.