A former classmate avoids the MFA program reunion. Her writing career isn’t developing like life according to Facebook. In the five years since graduating, others have published, found full-time academic positions, received recognition. Her achievements, while quite nice, feel small. She’s talented. Her peers and faculty think she will be successful.
The Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing of the University of Southern Maine is not a competitive hotbed. It is a rigorous, yet mellow, graduate school experience that supports each individual student. By graduation night, a quarter of my class of twenty had published a book-length work. A few were teachers who completed the degree with no intentions of publishing. Some only hoped to graduate. We wouldn’t see half the class on Facebook. When we did see the other half, they would have BIG news of their achievements.
How to calibrate success in the arts is very personal. I assemble an annual plan and define why each activity supports my goals. If a year goes by with nothing to publicly recognize, I have a private sense of accomplishment. This year my plan is a mixture of wishes, hard facts and aggressive timelines.
In month seven I have blogged less than I intended, entered a novel into competition that was not planned, walked away from my teaching strategy, and am on track to get a fourth novel to my publisher in early November. I’ve also written three good short stories, became a board member for a new writing center opening in Door County, Wisconsin. The year feels okay. What does bother me is if I was relying on my creative writing to feed the family, we’d be hungry. I still earn more on one freelance project than royalties. That’s rough.
My son, a piano teacher and performer, works at a music school and as faculty at a summer musical theater camp, accepts a lot of gigs, and collects handfuls of 1099s each year to live the artistic life he has designed. His definition of success is a blend of artistic recognition, creative freedom and financial independence. At his age I was climbing the corporate ladder while trying to ignore the need to create artistically. I’m not sure I could have faced the multiple insecurities of the writer’s life at his age. Not all reviews are good, a book can be well received and not sell big numbers, lots of publishing doesn’t pay. Gulp.
Being a writer, musician, or potter offers no guarantees except lots of work with the slim possibility of public recognition. There is a definite element of luck in our success. The Donal Ryan story of 47 rejections before being published, then making the Booker Prize long list, is not unusual. I am so grateful for my writing and artist friends who keep my dreams both realistic and aggressive. Maybe next year I’ll have the breakthrough novel or publish a Pushcart nomination short story. If not, I’ll still be a published author with a plan to keep me pushing through the rough days. How to gather a bushel of good luck remains a mystery.
Keep writing. Surround yourself with those who understand. Go to your reunion. Carry a good luck charm. When you have good news, brag it up on Facebook. We’ll all cheer.