I signed on to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Spalding University three years ago after leaving my last medical job. I had written a first draft of a novel and wanted to make it better but didn’t know how. I thought the MFA might be a good way to do that. I also thought it would help me validate my desire to be a writer, would spur me to write a lot, would provide feedback, help me improve, help me write. Now that I am heading toward graduation, and am yet again procrastinating getting my writing done, it seems like a reasonable enough time to reflect on the experience.
As far as the novel goes, I worked on parts of it with my mentor during the first semester, and, at his encouraging, wrote some new stories unrelated to the novel, part of a possible new project of interrelated short stories. A year later, before a book length manuscript workshop, I rewrote the entire novel, changing some things that needed to be changed, reorganizing the scenes, rethinking the relationships between characters. In the workshop I was given incredibly helpful feedback from five readers. I need to rewrite the book again, need to deepen the characters, need to better define the conflicts. It feels overwhelming. The linked short story project has fallen by the wayside as well. Perhaps that is something I will revisit. Some day.
For my second semester at Spalding I decided to try nonfiction, as I was interested in writing essays about medicine, and figured this would be a good opportunity. To my surprise, I started a memoir about my experiences as a patient which I’ve added to over the next two semesters. I talk about my medical training and practice, family struggles, the death of my mother.
I had expected to have the memoir done by now, but it turned out to be more difficult than I had expected. It was a challenge to find themes, to organize topics instead of just writing a timeline of my life experiences. Before the MFA program, I used to ponder for hours, days, about my writing, thinking and thinking about a subject, or fretting that I couldn’t seem to focus down on a subject. Eventually, the ideas would coalesce, I would sit down at the computer, and an essay or chapter would pour out. I had hoped that the MFA would transform my process into a daily writing official job, but that has not happened. I fret about pieces, panic about deadlines, struggle to focus on ideas, and sometimes a chapter or essay gels. More often it does not. I write because it is expected, but I really hate having my writing come out bad, rambling. I understand, and agree, with the notion that the best writing comes in revision, yet I seem to be struggling with that, too. The issue seems to be one of focus. Why can’t I focus?
When I was practicing medicine, the pressure to focus came from outside. My focus was on my patients – connecting, trying to understand them, trying to figure out what was wrong and what to do about it, discussing my thoughts with them, and recording the encounter in the medical record. The work was intense. At the end of the day, my patients’ stories rang in my head. The images of their terrible experiences in life – childhood abuse, bad decisions, regrets, loss, grief, sickness – all haunted me. There was no room for the stories I wanted to write. Even when characters popped up in my head and tried to tell me their stories, I had no time or energy for them.
When I was teaching family practice residents in training, their stories – their traumas, struggles, desires, difficulties – along with their patients’ issues, occupied my time. I was embroiled in the struggles of the clinic, the residency program, the politics. My writing was limited to brief chart notes or presentations for the residents’ teaching sessions and grand rounds. I was tired and stressed every minute and the writing impulse faded.
So now that I have had time, now that I am not so stressed, not so fatigued, now that I have opportunity, why haven’t I burned up the computer keys with my words, my tomes? Here’s a writing opportunity on a silver platter but I haven’t finished a book, haven’t published anything except a small short story and a small essay each buried in their respective, small, online journals.
All the while I sit at the computer I am aware of the garden outside filling in with weeds, the lawn that needs to be mowed, the house that needs to be cleaned, the food that needs to be cooked, the bills that need to be paid, the husband who thinks I’m a slacker and wants me to go back to a paying job. I want to be a person who compartmentalizes her life, who is driven to write, who writes. Instead I am distracted and disorganized. Some days I get a lot of gardening done. Other days I cook or clean. Most days I fret about the writing I’m not doing. Occasionally some ideas percolate enough to become an essay, filling in some of the vacant spots of my memoir project, helping me believe I am a good writer after all. Encouraged and newly confident I sit back down at the computer, try again to force myself to write, and again I fail. I tell myself to go with the flow, relax and just think and ponder. As my anxieties rise, I wonder, again, if writing makes sense as a career. I wonder again if I am just fooling myself.