It would be nice if I knew three years ago what I know now. Then I would have been able to forge that knowledge under the cauldron of being an MFA student. It’s like, as an undergrad, when you write a paper the day before it’s due, and as you’re reading it just before you turn it in, you think to yourself, “Man, this would be a lot better if I just had one more day to work on it,” which you would have had if you had started a day earlier on the paper. Just me?
It’s tempting to look back and think about what I should have done previously as a writer that would have propelled me beyond my current literary stature. I didn’t even start writing fiction in earnest until two months before MFA applications were due, at the same time I decided to leave the active duty Navy and pursue the passion I had been putting on hold or otherwise repressing for most of my adult life. I wrote a series of Microsoft Word documents until I was able to compile two ten-page pieces that could pass as stories. I applied to 15 programs, confident I would get into at least a handful. The rejections piled up inversely proportional to the rate my ego deflated. In the end, I was only accepted to one program: Colorado State.
Three years later, I am leaps and bounds beyond where I was when I began the program, and I have an even longer way to go. Now, my writing has some semblance of being focused, of the elements of the story—character, plot, theme—and an awareness that page, paragraph, sentence, and word must work together in harmony to accomplish a cohesive product. That doesn’t mean I always succeed, or that it doesn’t take a lot of work to get there. Like many pursuits, writing is work, work here is a four-letter word that doesn’t have vulgar connotations. It means submitting yourself to the process so that you can finish what you started, by accounting for that feeling catalyst with quantifiable words.
And it is a process, a journey. No one needs permission to be a writer, and the diploma received in an MFA program doesn’t qualify you to do anything but continue that journey. Really quick: You want to be a writer? Then write.
But “becoming a writer” is not completely what an MFA is for, a lesson I didn’t realize until attending Colorado State. Previously, I didn’t think writing fit into my Navy life, or that it didn’t apply. Before I began my MFA application process, I thought I was going to be a Foreign Service Officer, a lawyer, get an MBA, or, hell, just stay in the Navy.
But here’s the thing: I could have done all those things and still have been a writer. And here’s another thing: I’ll soon be starting a job as a business analyst, but that won’t preclude me from continuing to be a writer. I’ll do so because of the writing momentum I have gained at CSU, through the time and space that the program has helped to instill in me. Would I like to teach creative writing at the university level? Well, that’s not a question that yet applies. Carts before horses equals some messed up horses. I need to publish first, but even before that, I need to put in the work.
Writing, then, is a balance of the personal and universal. When I rushed my undergraduate papers at the last second, it was, in part, due to my obligations as an engineering major (quick plug, there), but it was also because I wasn’t submitting to the process of writing that everyone must go through in order to write a piece that is worthwhile, because I wasn’t going through that process myself. It’s not beneficial to feel guilty about the barely competent stories I submitted at my MFA program, but it is good to learn the lesson that those stories were a product of the writer I was at the time, but not now.
Going to school at a Division 1 program, I never quite made it onto the varsity track and cross country team, but I tried. After I left the team my junior year, and after graduation, and after the Navy flew me out of shape, I continued to fight against the tide of time and physical irrelevance. Not because of the worldly accomplishment I would gain, other than a possible personal record, but because running was important to me.
I underwent left hip surgery last June, and have been working everyday to get back on my feet to run races again. I’ll never make the Olympic trials; I might not ever be as good as I once was. But that’s not why I run. I run because doing so a part of me, and the act of running converts that potential energy to reality manifold. Put in the work and you might not achieve the desired result, but you will never achieve it if you don’t. That’s running. That’s life. That’s writing.