“Why are you here?”
It’s the second day of my first residency at Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. It’s January in Pennsylvania. I had to buy a coat for the trip because in Texas we only wear jackets. I’m freezing, but I’m excited. I’m in graduate school, finally. But it’s the second day, and despite my efforts to be just one of the students, word has spread like wildfire through the student population. “We have a published author in the new class.”
Suddenly the shy smiles I’d been receiving morph into furtive glances and whispers as I walk past. A few bold students corner me and ask that question: “Why are you here?”
Trust me, it’s a question I asked myself several times as I decided to apply to the program and after I was accepted as I filled out student loan paperwork and even as I bought my brand new coat. But, when a stranger corners you and demands to know why you’re there, you start to doubt yourself. Was I crazy for going back and getting my MFA ten years into a successful career? The answer is probably yes, but as it turned out, the MFA program saved my career.
During that first residency, I was a week away from the debut of my brand new Prospero’s War series. DIRTY MAGIC was poised to do Big Things. My first series was pretty successful and had landed me on a bestseller list. My new concept was tight (The Wire with Wizards) , and people were excited, and I knew I’d written a good book. So, when I entered the program, I was an already-successful author who was going to strengthen my craft and learn how to teach writing to earn a little extra scratch. That was basically the pat answer I gave to everyone who asked that week.
Fast forward. Dirty Magic comes out. Reviews are great. Sales are … well, they’re fine. Some of my readers are mystified by the grittier procedural tone of the books. Others wonder why it wasn’t funny like my previous series. I found some new readers, though, and they liked it. My colleagues said I’d done something new and awesome. But it was clear very quickly this series wasn’t gaining the traction we’d hoped for–a reality that was only amplified when the second book came out and sales dropped dramatically. There’s a laundry list of reasons this happened. I won’t share them because they’ll make me sound bitter. It happens. It’s part of the deal, right? Sometimes fortune favors you. Sometimes you write your ass off and you’re left without much to show for it.
The first semester of my graduate school experience, I wrote DEADLY SPELLS, the third book in the series, as well as two novellas I owed my publisher. Writing an entire novel and two novellas in four months is not easy. Add to that the pressures of promoting the new series, juggling my other grad school work, and my growing unease over several things happening in The Industry that were effecting my career trajectory, and you have yourself a recipe for a major case of burn out. When my editor came back and said they wanted a new book deal I told her I was going to take a break and focus on school. I appreciated their faith in me to continue to write good books, but I did not share that faith anymore. It all felt too capricious. I’d been killing myself for seven years to write novels and promote myself and build a career, but I realized that my imagined success was built on a foundation of quicksand. I was ten times the writer I was when I got my first contract. I was working harder than I’d ever worked. But my income had decreased to the point where I wasn’t sure I could afford to be a writer any more.
But I was already in grad school. Going into my second semester, I decided to write a story idea that I’d had for a few years that was in a genre I’d never written. If I was going to be in school, I was going to make the most of the chance to workshop new types of stories. I was finally, after years of being under contract, going to allow myself to play and experiment. Looking back, I know now that if I hadn’t been in my MFA program, I probably would have stopped writing altogether (not for good, probably, but for a good, long while). Having those monthly deadlines kept me writing. Writing something as an experiment took the pressure off. I told myself that the only thing this new book had to do was earn me my MFA. I didn’t have to publish it when it was done. Man, I can’t convey the freedom that gave me–it gave myself permission to fall in love with writing again.
A year-and-a-half later, I am almost done with that book. I know it is the best book I have ever written. I have no idea if it will ever find a place in the market, but I don’t care. Sometimes you write things just because you need to write them. High, Lonesome Sound is a book about a girl who’s lost her song. I realize now that girl was me. I’d lost my song and writing this book helped me find it again.
Yesterday, I read Chuck Wendig’s post about the challenges a writer faces mid-career. My mid-career crisis landed me in grad school. I believe that part of me knew my crash was coming even before Dirty Magic came out. The signs had been there for a while even if I hadn’t admitted them to myself.
As I mentioned in my post “Habits of Happy Writers” a while back, I saw this great documentary called “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” which was about backup singers. Merry Clayton, who sang backup on The Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter,” commented on her lack of success as a solo artist:
“I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”
The thing is, for the first several years of my writing career, this was my belief, too. I loved telling stories so of course I’d be successful. In my defense, I had a pretty auspicious start. My first contract was one of those dream deals–six figures, multiple books, pre-empted. From the beginning, I believed that my passion had simply paid off. Truth was, I was lucky. That isn’t lack of confidence speaking. I know I am a good writer, but lots of better writers than me never get that kind of deal. Truth is, loving stories is its own end. It’s enough. What does success mean, anyway, when we control so little?
The lessons I’ve learned over the last couple of years are the kind that new writers might not understand. Some of you even now might be sneering about how you wish you had my problems. I used to be there, too. I thought what I wanted was big book deals and best seller lists and awards. But I’ve had those, and I’m here to tell you that they won’t make you happy. That lesson, sadly, is never learned the easy way. But trust me when I say that you’re better off protecting your love of writing than chasing popularity or money. I love making money and the minor fame I’ve achieved can be really fun. But seeking those things can no longer be the engines that drive me. Fame and money are fickle masters.
“Why are you here?”
My cohorts in the program did me a favor. They were asking the question that needed answering. Not “why are you in grad school?” but “why are you here, period?” It’s helped remember why I started writing in the first place. It’s allow me to forget about marketing myself and my books for a while so I could focus on craft. It’s proven to me that I am a good teacher and that teaching needs to be a part of my career moving forward because it keeps me excited about the craft. It’s humbled me and reinvigorated my reverence for writing.
I have five months left in the program. Part of me is ready to be done, but another part of me is dreading the end. Seton Hill has been a safe place for me–an incubator and a safe community of like-minded writers. Soon enough, I’ll send my little thesis novel to my agent, and I’ll face the anxiety of waiting to see if the world cares about my story. I am okay with that because I know that what really matters is I care about my story. What the rest of the world thinks isn’t as important as the fact I found my song again, and I intend to sing it for a good long time.
P.S. Inevitably someone will comment on this post that an MFA is a waste of time. Or someone will claim that I’m saying that every writer needs an MFA. In fact, I don’t believe most people need an MFA. Remember, I’d published a LOT of novels before I went back to get my degree. I was largely self-taught with the help of a few kindly mentors along the way. It’s also worth noting that I entered an MFA program that taught popular fiction, which is my specific field. I felt like I finally knew enough to teach someone something about writing and knew SHU would help me learn how to teach popular fiction to new writers. As it happened, it also helped cement the gaps in my knowledge through study of genre, critique workshops and theory discussions. I don’t think anyone should enter an MFA program just because they think it will get them published. You get out of the program what you put in. It’s not a matter of simply showing up, doing the minimum required and suddenly you’ve got a publishing deal. For some, the community and accountability of a program like this can be incredibly inspiring and helpful. But whether you get an MFA, or you just write your ass off, there are no guarantees in publishing–or life. If getting a degree will help you do the work you need to do to become a writer, then go for it. If you think it’s a BS waste of time, don’t bother. There are thousands of roads to take. I’d just advise you to take the ones that scare you the most because they’ll teach you the most about yourself.