I'm moving to New York to get my MFA. How do I survive in a world where success equals fame?
I’m moving to New York to get my MFA in nonfiction — I hope to be a writer. How do I stay sane in a competitive field where success is basically “be famous”? What is the balance among work to be proud of, self-promotion, the numbers game (Twitter followers, Facebook friends, website stats, book sales, pounds gained from emotional eating), and other people always being better? How do I move to New York without the word baggage of “jealous,” “inadequate” and “afraid”?
Greetings, Future Would-Be Competitor!
Advance congrats on making the big schlep to New York, where professional writers suffer and strive in unparalleled numbers! You’re doing the right thing by coming here, though I can’t necessarily condone your decision to go the grad school route with the same amount of conditionless confidence (though I’m certainly aware that you didn’t, ahem, ask). From my experience, I think that when it comes to writing things that aren’t novels, the best way to learn how to do it is to farm yourself out for freelance gigs like a meth addict juggling plates. Do it a lot is what I mean. Take non-paying assignments for the experience, meet people in the process, and use those relationships to get yourself more work, becoming better and better at writing while you do.
However! Being a newcomer to the Big City is no short task, and the structure of grad school, however expensive (and, combined with the life expenses of a typical New Yorker, prohibitively so, unless you have some kind of sheik benefactor), is often helpful to aspirants looking to learn the ins and outs of stringing a sentence together, while making contacts in the process. So, good luck with your MFA, and I won’t snark on it any further. I’ve been burned myself in the “I”m going to get a master’s degree!” department, only to wish later that I had the cash equivalent of those years, but I think regret is useless in the absence of time travel, so let’s all tuck our tales and execute our learned lessons going forward, which is what time does anyway.
As far as staying sane and achieving balance in a competitive field, I think that’s a matter for you and the more sympathetic of your friends, your yoga instructor, your chaplain or rabbi, or the person you complain to weekly who gives you your Pristiq prescription. In other words, whatever balance it is you seek will come, by definition, from the parts of your life that are not embedded in the work areas of it, and whatever perspective you have on it will come from your philosophical worldview. As for achieving some kind of sanity within the profession, I will happily advise you from the experience I’ve accrued in my last (mumble-mutter-I am old) years as a writer.
If you are making money writing, you are doing great. If you can support yourself writing, you are a success. I don’t care if you’re writing textbooks or Pulitzer Prize-winning articles for weighty publications of world renown: If you’re writing and it’s paying the bills, consider yourself a successful writer. Beyond that — when it comes to Twitter followers, book sales, and pretty much anything else you mentioned besides emotional weight gain — which I’d discuss with any of the above advisors, especially the doler out of antidepressants, because there are some meds that will puff you out like the cotton candy cloud Katy Perry’s resting on and others that will tighten you up like a knotted shoelace — you are really talking about fame, which is different from success, and by a wide margin.
Try as hard as you can not to worry about whether you are destined to become the next author of that book about Food and Oprah and Women and God, in that order. Look to your short-term goals as they present themselves, and try as best you can to do so with blinders on, because jealousy of your colleague’s latest achievement will only bring you further away from your own discretion as to what it is you actually want to do. It’s just distracting to get hung up on Suzie’s feature on Chelsea Clinton’s wedding on UsMagazine.com or Margie’s listicle on the Daily Beast of the Nation’s 15 Wealthiest Dogs, when all it is you came here to do was, say, financial reporting.
For the time being, focus on the formidable task of moving to New York City and surviving your first semester. Ace your assignments. Be nice to people. Listen like it’s your job (it kind of is). Whether or not you find an apartment big enough to stash all of your “word baggage,” the mere fact that you’re taking the steps that you are to get here deserves acclaim. So, hooray! Here is some acclaim for you! Now get to work on your writing skills so you can start paying your rent on the merit of your work at some point, and never mind the fame talk, the clatter of irrelevant accomplishments that are not your own, or the self-doubt that clouds the inner voice of any writer, like so many Katy Perry-hosting cotton candy doom harbingers. Clear them away and do your work. The rest will come soon after.
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