Monday, February 28, 2011

{Guest Blog by Leila Emery} Finding Inspiration to Write After An MFA Program Is Over

Thank you to Leila Emery for today’s guest blog post. I’m sure her post will be reassuring for current MFA students and graduates alike.  

Originally from Massachusetts, Leila Emery holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Smith College, and a M.A. in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University. The former managing editor of the Potomac Review, Leila currently works as a freelance editor and an adjunct English instructor. Her poetry has appeared in 95Notes, Advocate, Survivor's Review, Abbey and poetryfish, and is forthcoming in 24/7: A Caregiving Anthology.

{Guest Blog by Leila Emery} Finding Inspiration to Write After An MFA Program Is Over

Roughly a year after finishing my graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins, I found myself at lunch with a fellow poet discussing our writing lives (cue air quotes). The truth was, I did not, at that point, have a writing life. Admitting as much to my friend was humbling, to say the least. She is a very disciplined person – one who gets up at 6am to write for two hours. Faithfully. Every day. To her credit, my friend reacted very non-judgmentally to my admission, but she did pose one important question: “Why?”

Now, however, about three and a half years later, I think I’ve gained some perspective on why my year-long dry spell occurred.  It really comes down to this: a lack of inspiration. As much as I would love to have the self-discipline that so many of my writer friends naturally possess -- to sit down and write, no matter what -- I’m just not wired that way. Sure, I can write “on cue”, but it doesn’t necessarily feel natural or genuine. I can recall a few instances back in grad school when I’d have a poem due for a workshop, but the inspiration to write simply wasn’t there. Consequently, in an effort to show up with something, I ended up producing several pieces that I was not proud of. In trying to justify it to myself at the time, I would blame that darn muse for failing to show up when I needed her. In fact, the muse did not visit me at all during the year after my graduation from Hopkins. It wasn’t for a lack of trying; I would sit down to write several times a week, but produced nothing. I kept wondering why, when I love writing so much, when it has always been such an integral part of my identity, was it just not happening? So I decided to handle my writer’s block by giving myself a break – a long one. I partook in other activities I enjoy: watching films, taking dance classes, spending time with loved ones, and reading mountains of books. And yes, it took a while -- a year to be exact -- but I was finally able to recapture the inspiration I was badly missing.

My experience is not unique, nor is it something I’m still ashamed of. There is no doubt that MFA programs can be incredibly rewarding, but they can also be incredibly draining. We write more than perhaps we’ve ever written in our lives -- mostly “on cue” -- and it can feel, at times, like running a marathon. Many of us find ourselves simply trying to catch our breath after finishing a writing program. Compound that with jobs teaching writing or freelance editing, and it’s no wonder that the inspiration to work on our own craft isn’t always there when we’d like it to be. For those of you who find yourselves in a similar predicament, I would like to share a few of the techniques I use to summon up inspiration.

1). Read Like a Writer

I know – it sounds horribly clich├ęd. But I have found that close reading (by which, I mean reading beyond just the pre enjoyment of it) can indeed help spark my own creativity. Each time I read a book, no matter what the genre, I make a dog ear on a page if I come across something I find particularly striking – usually an arresting image or a stunning turn of phrase to which I have a visceral reaction. On days when I’m feeling less than inspired, I often go back to the dog-eared pages to relive that initial reaction and see what it evokes for me on a personal level. If I’m lucky, doing so might jar a long-forgotten memory or image, which I can then begin to flesh out in writing. Ultimately, though, this technique comes down to the essential element for any writer: reading. After all, as writers, we are in love with words, and it is often in the admiration of and identification with the words of others that we are blessed enough to find our own stories emerging.

2). Try Writing From A Different Point Of View

As a female poet, it is natural for me write from a woman’s perspective. The “I” voice in my poetry is either meant to represent me myself, or at least, another woman. As such, writing from a man’s perspective was not something I had ever tried. A few months ago, however, I read and fell in love with Emma Donoghue’s Room -- a novel written as a first-person narrative, but from the perspective of a five year-old boy. Donoghue’s ability to capture the mindset and vocabulary of a young child -- and a male one at that -- is astounding. After finishing Room, I kept asking myself if I, too, were capable of writing from a male point of view? That same night, I wrote my first poem using only a male perspective as inspiration. The experience was illuminating. Not only was it incredibly exciting to write from an unfamiliar point of view, but doing so also reminded me of the importance of writing outside my comfort zone and not being afraid to take risks. I have found that writing from a different point of view from time to time allows me to envision my subjects in completely new ways, and helps me to piece together fresh narratives that I never would have contemplated otherwise.

3). Revisit Old Work

During the process of putting together our graduate theses at Hopkins, my classmates and I got into the habit of constant revision. In fact, one of the requirements of the thesis was an additional narrative explaining our personal revision process, as well as the reasoning behind particular changes and edits. The purpose of doing multiple revisions was made quite clear to us – to provide an opportunity to discern and appreciate one’s growth as a writer while moving closer to a more developed, “final” version. During my year-long dry spell, one of my mentors suggested I revise some old pieces from graduate school to see if doing so would inspire new material. I appreciated the advice, but neglected to take it. Though I was proud of the majority of the work I produced in my writing program, I was eager to move forward with new material; I didn’t then see the effect that even simply reading through my body of work might have. Over the past few years, however, I have found myself revisiting some of my older poems -- even a few dusty ones from my college days -- from time to time, especially when faced with writer’s block. I try to take the same advice I give my composition students, which is to approach a second or third draft with new eyes: to literally re-see rather than just trying to “fix” mistakes. I recently went back to an early draft of a poem I had written for a workshop but which never made its way into my thesis. The poem’s subject concerns my rivalry with a childhood adversary. In the years since first writing that piece, she and I have established a mutual respect – a surprising turn of events that forced me to look at the poem in a new way. I ended up revising the poem several times and the current version is vastly different from the original – it’s truly a new piece in its own right. On the topic of revision, Francine Prose remarks, “for any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form.” Indeed, the act of reading and revising old work forces us to view our craft with fresh perspective – something that can prove especially helpful when searching for inspiration.

We all approach writing in different ways. Some of us are able to sit down and write, faithfully, every day. Others, like myself, need that flash of inspiration, however brief, to pay us a visit before we can put pen to paper or dance our fingers across the keyboard. I am grateful to have recognized this about myself, but even more so to know that I don’t have to feel ashamed of it. The words will come when they come, and when they do, I know they will arrive from a place of clarity and truth.

For more by Leila, you might be interested her pieces Writing and Discourse In and About Iran and Iranian American Writers Today, both from the Potomac Review’s blog.

1 comment:

Zachary Benavidez said...

Leila, you write beautifully and honestly. Like you, I also stopped writing after my program for the many reasons you list -- no muse, no time, new occupations, new obligations -- and like you, I took a break, a long, long break. Five years, in fact.

Your tip about revisiting old work is especially helpful. As you note, our professors taught us the revision process for a reason; now is the time to put that lesson to good use.

Thank you for your suggestions and, especially, for your insight.