Trust the Practice
Although I studied finance as an undergraduate, that degree wasn’t necessary to see that an MFA in creative writing promised zero future income. In fact, the MFA opens very few professional doors. Although it’s a terminal degree, the possibility of getting a tenure track job is nonexistent without a book (or two). Jobs in publishing are uber-competitive and low-paying. God bless J.K. Rowling, but no theme park will be erected around a Kurt Hoberg story. So, upon starting the three-year program, my focus wasn’t on the degree finish line. And certainly not on whatever was to come after.
Any art requires you to develop and abide by a practice. This was my primary goal in graduate school. On the list of daily habits, I wanted writing to rank somewhere between bathing and coffee-drinking (mileage may vary). There were a number of virtues: because I knew I’d write the next day and the day after, there wasn’t any reason to beat myself up for a lackluster writing sesh. How many times have you ever stared your reflection down and growled, “You gotta make this morning’s teeth-brushing count, damnit.”? Also, as a result of this dedication, the stories I submitted for writing workshop every semester weren’t a spasm of nervous deadline energy. I am a writer, so it goes without saying that I think those stories were all still terrible—I’d like to burn most of them—but the product wasn’t so important. The journey, not the destination. You reach the opposite shore in every step you take.
The real fruits of the practice? Upon graduating, and throughout the transition into “real life,” i.e. tenuously employed life, I was still writing. Granted, I missed a few more sessions than I would have during my student days. But the grittiness on the enamel and the chunks caught between molars were intolerable. It wasn’t hard to sit down in the chair and write.
Writing will always be the second job for which I’m condemned to get up early or skip a night out. And because no one will see those many hours of toil and because there will be days and weeks that clanking words together appears such an epic waste of time, writing will be the easiest thing to stop doing. And that’s why having established that practice is essential. It is the thing that I do without debate. We all suffer from decision fatigue; it’s why some people just wear jeans and black t-shirts, eat the same bland thing morning and night; and so if you have to decide not only when and where you should write, but if you feel like writing, you’ll almost always choose against it. And only when you’re in the tightest spot of your life—coming off a ruined relationship, or procrastinating about some major report for that necessary evil called a day job—will the writing desk suddenly seem attractive. And that’s no way to cultivate fulfillment, let alone success.
Of course, our practices are job or field-dependent. Feel free to replace “writing” in this post with “research” or “networking.” Regardless, it’s critical to determine the most important activity (and contradictorily the one you’re most loathe to do), and orient your schedule around it. These two or (gulp) seven years are an initiation into a career—a formative time—and they’ll hammer your habits into practices. Whether you’re intentional about them or not.
Kurt Hoberg earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of South Carolina in 2017. He’s currently an adjunct professor at UofSC.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Email GRADprofdev@sc.edu