Many of us wish there was a step-by-step guide for how to “adult” in a world where you might not feel ready to “adult.” The general guidelines seem to be “acquire job, spouse, family, mortgage, and be generally happy and successful,” but if you’re like me, that doesn’t seem feasible/reasonable/exciting/etc. and etc. We’re not really armed with a degree that’s going to make employers line up, right?
The only post-grad advice I can offer is my own experience. It’s a cautionary tale, and maybe there’s a lesson in here somewhere (you’ll just have to read the whole thing to figure it out!).
So, let’s start by addressing that age-old question: how do you balance your writing life and your real life post-MFA? My answer: you don’t. You don’t balance the two. You just stop writing.
When I was in the MFA program, on top of loving the community and classes and the writing I was producing, I paid the bills by working at a sandwich shop (jealous?). I was really good at working at the sandwich shop. So good I became the assistant manager of the sandwich shop. Then the general manager of the sandwich shop, pending my successful graduation from that pesky little degree program that I was still in (you mean you’re not impressed by my MFA, boss?).
Four days before I defended my thesis, I was handed the store keys. I now had a salary and benefits and employees to manage and payroll to process and product to order. I was a capital M Manager; I didn’t have time to be a writer.
Why run a sandwich shop when you’re about to graduate with your MFA, you ask? Answer: because I was a scared little shit. I had no idea what post-grad life would look like, how long it would take to find a job, if I could even find a job. And here was something I was good at (albeit something not completely satisfying), offering me a lot of money and security. Choose: go down the dark, poverty-ridden path of struggle, or the smooth road of money and security? For me, in that moment, it wasn’t a tough decision.
In the year and half that I worked as a general manger, I didn’t write any more than 20 pages. I didn’t have time to write; I had to go to bed at 9:30 to wake at 5:15 and spend ten hours running everything. I was worn down.
Then, I had one of those moments that AWP is really good at inducing– putting your writing life in perspective with others. Attending the 2013 Boston conference was when I knew I had to get out of my job. Being around other post-MFA writers and seeing the life I could have post-MFA made me upset for not being brave enough to choose that unforeseen, challenging path two years ago. What was the real benefit of the “safe” road? I was still miserable. I was tired, apathetic, and felt extremely unfulfilled by my lack of writing.
So I quit. Afterwards, I took a few risky jobs that didn’t pan out, but at least I was trying. I was unstable for a few months, but I was proud and sure and capable.
Six months after quitting (and working seasonal retail jobs and becoming a barista), I started finding freelance writing gigs (they’re out there, I promise; you can actually find real writing gigs if you’re vigilant). I found two “contract writer” jobs where I was paid based on my article’s page views. I wasn’t exactly writing the next Best American Novel, but I was getting paid to write. It felt glorious. Yes, also draining, but in a new, wonderful way. I was building my resume and writing portfolio and career in small micro movements. I moved on to bigger websites, writing more creatively, writing more what I wanted. I picked up more work as a freelance editor with independent clients. I worked on fiction again. I blogged. I read books. I felt more whole.
I also felt freer now to take bigger chances, like applying for and receiving teaching jobs. And while teaching can be as draining as anything else that pays you money, you are at least working in your field in some way. You are not tied to a sub shop for 50 hours a week and crying in front of your district manager when you fail your store inspection for the third time in a row because you can’t muster up enough energy to care for a job you’re not passionate about. Teaching, for me, is a healthier stress. It’s better than feeling like you’re not living your life’s purpose.
So, back to that question: how do you balance writing life and real life? Here’s my revised answer: if your “real life” job gets in the way of you and writing, quit that “real life” job. It may not be the right answer, or the answer that is the Key to the Mystery of Life, but it’s the truest thing I’ve learned in the three years since graduation. Because you are, at the end of the day, a writer. Is that not the one thing I can assume? I hope, if anything, I can assume that. If that is not so, go back two steps and decide if the MFA program is for you. If you’ve committed the time and energy and money to these people and this school and your craft and these readings and friends and workshops and gossip then, oh dear reader, please don’t make that all for nothing. Make sure you can still call yourself a writer.
I’m not saying you can’t be a writer with a “real life” job. Sure you can. But it will take persistence and dedication. Maybe you have that in abundance, Superman, and you’re good to go. Maybe you can balance a full time job and life and family and writing. Good for you! But if you’re concerned that that 50-hour-a-week salary job with benefits will take over your life and you won’t write, I’m here to tell you: it will. And maybe not writing for a while is OK for you. Maybe it will make you feel an ache and tug and pull for writing that you forgot while meeting lit paper deadlines and writing workshop critiques. But if you want to avoid the regret and the pining, decide if money and benefits and security are really the most important thing overall. If they are, then determine if you have the persistence and dedication needed to combat your “real world” job. I’d hate for you to have to spend two years always tired and smelling like a stale sub sandwich before getting back to feeling like who you really are. I really would.
Rachel Kolman graduated from UCF’s MFA program in 2013, where she worked on a collection of short stories. Stories from her MFA thesis have been published in WhiskeyPaper, Unmanned Press, and Bodega Literary Magazine. She teaches English Composition at Valencia College and makes a mean cup of joe at Vespr Coffeebar. She also writes about Books for Bustle and proofreads for Babbletype. She is a busy gal, but she’d be free if you wanna grab her a beer.