Now that I've got my master's in writing ... I'm not writing!

I do well with things I know I'm great at, but I'm not sure I'm great at writing.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 12, 2008 10:31AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm a reasonably happy, reasonably successful 28-year-old woman. Since moving to Chicago from Ann Arbor, Mich., five years ago, I've done fairly well as a personal trainer at an upscale health club. I've got a great apartment, good friends and a wonderful boyfriend with whom I live. This past June, I earned my master's in writing, finally attaining the knowledge and experience I thought I might need to change careers and pursue writing full time. Though much of my background is in fitness, my plan has long been to stick with training only until I could secure a writing job or switch to training part time and writing freelance. My friends, my family and even my professors have been enormously supportive of this plan.

Now, nine months later, the question I've come to dread is, "How's the writing going?" The honest answer, which I always -- albeit begrudgingly -- supply, is that it's not. Aside from a deliriously short-lived venture into fitness blogging, I've stalled in my attempts to produce anything worthy of publication. I acknowledge that I lack motivation, and I've blamed it on everything from my erratic schedule to this spirit-sucking winter. But Chicago's harshest has begun to lift, and even my most convincing excuses have begun to wear thin.

Partly I think I'm overwhelmed by where to start. Partly I believe that the lack of a deadline (like I had when I was in school) has kept me from putting any of my work out there. And it exists -- I have plenty of material, mostly literary nonfiction, that I produced while in the writing program.

Mostly, however, I think I'm afraid. Which is funny, because I've never failed at anything I've set out to do. Which is perhaps my problem -- I've never set out to do anything I didn't already know I'd be successful at. I did well in school, and the writing program was no exception. My professors in large part lauded my work, even where I doubted myself. (For the record, I'm not convinced that I'm that good at this, but I think I'm at least good enough to get a job doing it. I think.)

In the next six months, my boyfriend and I will likely relocate from Chicago, thus forcing me to seek new work. I fear that I will settle back into a fitness job, where I know I'll do well, and that writing will continue to be a fantasy.

Is there any hope for me? How can I give myself the kick in the ass that I so desperately need?

Writing Only in My Dreams ...

Dear Dream Writer,

The connection between writing ... and writing for money or writing for success has to be broken. You need a good, strong, regular writing practice. The ego has to be broken for the voice to come through. The voice is what you want. The voice that makes no sense at first is what you want. The voice that sounds a little crazy is what you want. Try it.

You have to break the connection between ego and practice. The practice is the thing. How can you do that? You find a model in your life. What activities do you now practice for their own sake? Let's get very basic. What are your needs? You eat, you have sex, you listen to music, you exercise. What do you do for enjoyment alone? How do you manage your "inner life"? Do you meditate or practice any sort of religion? Do you enjoy cooking? Find a place like that in your life for your writing. You might try one of those books, too, like "The Artist's Way." I don't know, I haven't read all those books but I have read some of them. "Bird by Bird" helped a lot.

Regardless of whether you sell your writing, you do it. Regardless of anything, you do it. It has to be a practice. There are many ways to get there. One way, which I have only come to very late in my career, is to be in a workshop. You probably had those in college. Maybe you're sick of them. I was sick of them after college. But now the workshop is helping me. I am in such a workshop, but I am such an egotist and such a control freak that for me to be in a workshop I had to run my own. So be it. So I run my own. I walk around like I thought the whole thing up myself, but actually it is the Amherst Writers and Artists model. There are many models. This one works for me. I learn a great deal. And I am comforted. I need to be comforted because I am uncomfortable; I am a harsh self-critic. Others are not so lucky. I often hate my work. I simply detest it. I want to burn it. I think that it shows me in the worst possible light, as a whining, mewling infant, an idiot, a selfish prick. Yes, I am full of the most detestable self-hatred. And I am utterly transparent. This I take to be part of the job. Others do not. Others more successful have exquisite control; they write and do not feel the need to confess. What of it? Being a writer is permission to be disreputable: That is my chosen tradition. I am, shall we say, privately disreputable; I have my little jokes on the world and on myself; there is a dark side you don't see but you may feel it.

So give your self permission. Give your self permission to be wholly reprehensible. This is what they call the dark side. The dark side is where images arise unbidden before the ideas and the words. There is something there when you are not doing what you are supposed to do. So give yourself permission to be reprehensible because that is what is interesting and writing is not good or bad but only interesting. It lets us look through the peephole. Let yourself be a bad exercise person. Allow your vices. Give your vices voices. Let the voyeurs read you. Give people something to see. Give them a peep show. Take your clothes off in your writing because you'll be arrested if you take your clothes off in public but you can do it in your writing and you will not be arrested but you will be read. Be a bad person in your writing. The writing cleanses you. Be a bad person in your writing and then make yourself better and you have a changed character in a novel. It might be that simple: Start out bad and become good: That's change. Make a character do that. That's a character. Maybe we would call it drama or art. Anyway it helps you get on with the day.

Do it for these reasons. Keep doing it for these reasons. Do it for no reason. Keep doing it for no reason. When you are doing it because it is your voice, then it will not matter who is publishing you. It will have become apparent that writing is your friend. It will be what you would do in prison if they locked you up. It keeps you sane. It saves you. That's what it's for. Doing it for others sucks us dry. We have to do it for ourselves, for the love of it, for it. We have to give ourselves over to it like giving ourselves over to a lover or to the water, like giving ourselves over to the waves and sinking under. We just give ourselves to it. We surrender to it. We don't worry about who will publish it. We do it because we need to.

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