How to Leave School (Without Leaving Your Writing Behind)

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At the risk of sounding like a John Mayer song, I’ve never believed in the real world. Or rather, I’ve never believed in the non-real world, some supposed realm that acts as a cozy womb for practitioners of glorified hobbies, like extreme sports and graduate school. This idea seems to be born out of the belief that if you aren’t miserable, you aren’t working. I just don’t buy that.

I won’t argue that being in a writing program is the hardest thing in the world, but it isn’t quite the extended vacation some make it out to be. For each memory of a boozy late-night bullshit session during my time as an MFA then PhD student, there are umpteen moments of anxiety and worry. People in my programs had children and spouses. They endured health problems just like real people. They struggled to pay mortgages and rent, often with the help of second and third jobs to augment their shamefully meager per annum haul.

That said, it is easier to keep one’s focus on literature and writing within the graduate school/academic environment than it is on the outside. This is one of the chief benefits of being in graduate school: just about everyone you know in your program is really into books, and a lot of the time everyone you know outside of your program really isn’t.

I found this out quickly when I finished my MFA. I went from a world where just about every time I left my shabby apartment I ran into a poet or fiction scribe to an environment where the closest thing to a writer I could find were the kids tagging the local high school. Not able to pin down a teaching gig—and almost as a sort of weird joke, I told myself at the time—I took an office job where I sat in a cubicle and wrote about the stock market. On good days I’d end up covering politics and regulatory issues, things in which I am at least tangentially interested. On the worst days I wrote about corporations announcing mass layoffs—thousands of people out of work—and how these developments could be a boon to your portfolio.

Most days were worst days.

Each morning I sat on the edge of my bed imagining myself not driving through traffic to the office, not devoting nine of my twenty-four hours that day to the pious worship of create-nothing capitalism, not selling my values and principles for a tidy bi-monthly check, not voluntarily emptying my soul until it was little more than a dried out husk.

You know what doesn’t require a very well-nourished soul? Television. So after I got home from work I watched a lot of TV. And I’m not talking about The Wire. I mean network programming: sitcoms and reality programs and procedural dramas. Really, really awful TV.

I didn’t write for a year. It was a dark period.

So when I finished my PhD program I took precautions. I made a plan. I didn’t want to backslide into a similar state of existential torpor. I wanted to be productive. I wanted to keep my soul healthy.

Here are my suggestions for how to leave school without leaving your work behind:

1. Finish a project. The last stages of a project can be exhausting. You’ve looked at your book a thousand times, labored over each sentence or line, and honestly you’re kind of sick of it. Or at least I was. But I knew that if my collection was not finished—or very close to finished—I might use moving, unpacking, job searching, exploring as excuses to avoid those final edits. When I loaded up the car and drove away from the place I’d called home-ish for the past five years, I knew the book was as close to done as I could get it right then.

2. Start a new project. Okay, so this is not the easiest thing to do while trying to finish the other one, but for me it was crucial. Starting a project is laborious, and I needed to get some momentum going before I found all the excuses that a new life offers. So after my school obligations were out of the way, I dove headfirst into another book. When I left I didn’t have any of the new one—a historical novel—written, but I was well into research and starting to envision the book’s structure, characters, plot, etc. Instead of being daunted, I was excited to get going on it.

3. Create themed reading lists. We all know that you cannot write if you don’t read. We also know that every day the world offers more and more distractions. Through my final years of graduate school I focused the critical aspect of my study on the American suburban novel, and as I neared the end I veered into short stories dealing with that same milieu. I make lists of books and stories to read and keep a set of shelves reserved for these titles; I read criticism; I look into the development of the suburbs, demographics, architecture—anything that furthers my understanding of the literature that as come out of the environment. This kind of structured reading mimics a course schedule and allows the books I read to be in conversation with one another.

Since finishing school, I’ve started two new reading projects, the first on Midwestern literature, and the second on parallel novels and canonical retellings. Both of these topics, along with the ‘burbs, will be recurring subjects in my posts here on the Ploughshares blog. (Feel free to suggest titles to add to these lists in the comments fields below.)

4. Slow down on the boozing. This will most likely happen naturally, but if it doesn’t, make a conscious decision. The structure and schedule of grad school can make for a fairly forgiving environment and weeknight drinks (or even multi-day benders) are commonplace. But outside school it is far less charming. I’m reminded of that line from “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle” where the title character warns her husband, “You don’t want to turn into the town drunk, Eddie. Not in Manhattan.”

5. Be Facebook friends with writers. I know this might seem on one hand obvious, and on the hand counterproductive (the timesuck is real, and the timesuck is hungry), but away from your program it can quickly feel like you are utterly alone in your bibliophilia. You aren’t. There are others, and they’re are talking about Shteyngart’s blurbs. Be a part of that conversation. Just not too much.

6. Continue to think like a broke-ass grad student. I didn’t have much money as a student; chances are, you didn’t either. This is a good thing. The money I did have I spent at the local used bookshop. I learned to cook better because I couldn’t afford take-out. I went for walks. I almost never bought new clothes or tech-y toys. I didn’t have cable TV. I rarely went to the movies. I say all this not to point out how oh-so-very bohemian I am, but rather to point out the positive side of being a bit strapped. For me, this stretch of relative poverty recalibrated my values. I see commercials for fancy things and they don’t make much sense to me. Because most mass culture is essentially trying to get you to spend money, most of mass culture is not interested in serious thinking (in fact, quite the opposite). Writing requires serious thinking. Participate in these aspects of culture as little as possible.

You’ll probably have to get a job. You may end up with a terrible job for a while, like I did, but you don’t have to let that job sap you (like I did). Don’t stop writing. Don’t take a break. In fact, double your efforts. It’s time to get to work.