Working the Bad Days


I haven't been feeling much like a writer these days. It's funny that during this time that I am supposed to be putting the finishing touches on my one hundred and fifty page thesis, I feel farther from my identity as a writer than I have since I started my MFA program. Instead of polishing stories and revising nearly-there drafts, I've been sitting in front of my computer for as long as I can stand, pulling the wrongs words from the wrong places and trying to make do. It feels like a frosting tube that has stopped up, the words like sugar crystallizing in the tip. Or, like Jonathan Safran Foer said about writing, "like pulling teeth out of your penis."

I've been spending a lot of time feeling alone and sorry for myself.  I spend entire afternoons on Twitter. The other day I sat at a coffee shop and, instead of writing, gave some serious side eye to a girl because she put her phone on the same chair as my bag. One day I woke up and did nothing except buy a copy of Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist and eat two hot dogs.

And there are other things getting in the way of me finishing these one hundred and fifty pages. Two weeks ago I had some god awful disease (eczema? hand foot and mouth?) that left me completely bed ridden. This past weekend, J. and I moved 75% of my belongings into our apartment in western Massachusetts. Two days ago my eczema started spreading across the backs of my hands, wrapping itself around the soft slope of my shoulders. My skin itched so badly I couldn't sleep. I had to cross my arms across my chest and squeeze my shoulders between my hands in order for the nerve endings to stop vibrating. 

Now would be a great time to invest in one of those squeeze machines. 

And then yesterday, I made it all the way to Amherst, made it to a coffee shop, picked out a table facing a wall, ordered a cup of hazlenut, and turned on my computer to find it totally broken. 

I think a lot of people site forced production as a reason to apply to MFA programs. Aside from workshops and building a community of writers, it's one of the most important aspects of a writing program. And I admit it: being forced to write a story every two to four weeks for the past two years has been a big part of why I grew as a writer. 

But it's also a completely unsustainable as a creative process. Antonya Nelson wrote about it recently on the Tin House blog. Writing three stories a semester looks nothing like her process. In fact, it's downright weird. 

For the first year and a half of my MFA experience, this rate of production seemed helpful. I had become a perfectionist with my writing in my time away from workshops, agonizing over every line in a way that wasn't doing my work any favors. My writing had become overwrought, overly precious. Having to crank out ten pages of memoir every two weeks in that first semester forced me to let that go of that line control and focus on the more important qualities of a writing stories: narrative structure, character development, and creative judgement. 

At Bread Loaf this summer, on the last day of Rae Paris's fiction workshop, we each went to a corner of her house with markers and a piece of paper and wrote down the things that we needed next as writers. There was a lot that I needed, it turned out. I filled the page with things like "be open to experimentation" and "stop comparing myself to others" and "don't judge my success by the rate of my publications." But the thing that I wrote down first--in big and bold letters in the center of the page--was time. 

After two years of writing three stories a semester, I need more time with my stories. I need more time with my characters. I need time for my stories to become the stories that they need to be.  

This January I wrote a three page story about a mother and a daughter who go out in the middle of the night to find the sister who has run away from home. The story fell flat. It felt uninspired and one-dimensional. I knew it the minute I read it out loud to my workshop. So I put it away. Over the next six months I found myself drawn to the lyric essay. I began to look for ways to incorporate woven narratives into my short stories. I wrote a story about a woman who goes home to take care of her ailing father, braiding sections of the main narrative with stories and myths her used to tell her when she was a girl. 

And then, in June, I was listening to a lecture and the entire story clicked into place. That three page story about looking for the sister in the rain was the back story. The main story would be a scene I had been vaguely imagining for about a year: two adult sisters getting ready for their aunt's funeral together in a bathroom.

There. There was a story with depth. 

What am I saying is this: if this process seems forced and somewhat dreadful, it's because it is. Now, in these final days, I'm revising some stories that haven't been given time, the ones that feel flat and undeveloped but that I need to make it to my page count. And that sucks, but it's not forever. 

Yesterday, during my daily text meltdown with Jay, he said this, which I loved: "Emily, it will always be rough. It will get much worse and much harder. You only win by working on the bad days too."

If that isn't a motto for this life, I don't know what is.