This week, Brevity published Ms. Finnerty’s essay about her post-MFA life. Her experience has taught her specific things about love, trust, and finding what works for her. But some of the “advice,” like buying flip flops, is a wink to herself and falls to the wayside for the rest of us. When I read essays about how difficult it is to be a writer often I am not sure what the piece is trying to accomplish.
Is this glimpse into another writer’s world trying to make me feel less isolated or odd? Is this a chance for the writer to give a personal guided tour of each of their writing scars? If I didn’t already have an MFA, I might read an essay like this and wonder if I should even bother. Is the writer throwing down the gauntlet to the writing community, saying “put up or shut up”? (I guess that would be “publish or shut up.”) It’s often unclear who the essay is intended for and sometimes I feel like I’m reading code. Some I can translate, some, I can’t. Many of these essays are couched as advice, kitchen table wisdom shared over a cup of coffee, and I have an expectation of intimacy. Is this a response a writer would truly give while looking me in the eye?
The fundamental problem with these essays is that they usually do not distinguish between writing and publishing. Writing is an art, a craft, and a way to sort out one’s thoughts. Publishing is a business. They’re completely different from each other. And getting those two to correlate and coincide in the real world is quite separate from an MFA, which is a whole other thing. But in an essay, writing, publishing, and an MFA can seem intertwined, then if the writer throws in some angst, financial distress, health problems, and despair, then the essay gets blurry. When I read these pieces, I want to know if if the writer has made it clear that they understand the difference between writing, publishing, and studying in an MFA program, as well as the causes, effects, and interplay between the three. And I also pay careful attention to the ending. How does the piece end compare to where it started? Am I still hung up on the really negative moment part in the middle of the piece or has the writer carried me through to the end? And what happens at the end? The ending of these essays is where the writer establishes their credibility with me. Or not.
It’s not entirely gloom and doom. These essays can be activist platforms. Many magazines now accept simultaneous submissions as a result of the many essays that exposed how long it takes to publish when submitting work in serial rather than in parallel. These changes are why I keep reading them and hoping for them. “Being a Writer is Hard” essays are important part of the conversation among writers. They force us to look at our fears, shortcomings, and failures in our practice. They are often sad, difficult, sometimes angry. And believe me, I don’t need to read another writer’s essay to feel bad about my work, so I am very careful about how I read them and I choose to take with me.