Like Michael Oatman UNO MFA faculty member pictured here, we should all reach for the sky

Michael Oatman

Michael Oatman

Why start an MFA program?

Why start anything? A love affair, cooking school, martial arts, mountain climbing, spelunking, photography, why start making love, the world might end and you might not get to finish, or you might find that you’re not as good at it as you hoped you’d be. Or you find that there are others getting famous while you’re still cave diving in a thoroughly amateurish manner for months, maybe years.  We start writing programs because it’s a journey we want to take.  Because we want to start walking down a road, learning an activity that we might take years to get good at.

Among the many courses I took in college were: French, Spanish, horseback riding (seriously) dance (four years) theatre, astronomy (I was in love with Carl Sagan).  Of all of those, the most useful has been the Spanish.  But I’ve never regretted any of those.  I still ride horses, speak French, dance, (not as well as Amy Hassinger) love plays, and when I get out of the city, and I look  up at the stars, I can name them like old friends staring down on me just as they did when I grew up in the woods of New Hampshire and I could see the whole Milky Way and I used to say to myself, I am going to do something amazing in this galaxy not having a single clue how small I was.

When I started to take writing courses, I sucked and I continued to suck long after I graduated with a Master’s in writing, I continued to write a lot of really bad stuff, and I enjoyed the heck out of it.  I enjoyed getting my writing muscles going, swimming around in language and getting to read some big writers.  When I started, I was reading mostly science fiction.  My teachers said no to science fiction.  They told me to read Hemingway who I liked very much and I even went hiking in the woods and tried to imagine myself as a Nicola Adams, I liked reading all of it, even the big white male writers stomping around in the world.  I was so excited to be part of it.  I didn’t learn to be a writer in graduate school, I didn’t learn till later, but I was given the tools that would carry me forward into my future writing life.  When I graduated, that life stretched before me like blue hills to the horizon.  That’s why you start an MFA, to begin a journey, like learning to enter the caves of the imagination.  At first, it’s wet and dark and cold down there, and that’s all you notice and then your eyes adjust and you see that you’re inside a big story.

Read Bhanu Kapil’s response to MFA programs, you’ll like what she has to say as well.


Kate Gale

This post originally appeared on Kate Gale: A Mind Never Dormant.

The act of writing

Last week, I lost a friend and colleague to a catastrophic cerebral hemorrhage. Once her family members accepted that her consciousness, speech and mobility would never return, they collectively agreed to withdraw life support. Within hours, she peacefully died, surrounded by those who love her most.

This event re-iterated my intended compulsion to live fully present in this minute and this day. Having had a glimpse of mortality with a post-of bleed, I know my life has an expiration date. I have core values which guide my living and I am clear about my priorities: being in right relationship with those I love and making meaning and fun from my life experiences, day in and day out. Even so, it is interesting how I, and others, consistently lose track of that which is most important and become entangled with trivial tasks, dread and worry more often than I choose. Some of this entangling is due to the hard wiring of our brainstem, the antidote to which is increasingly popular practices of mindfulness.

As a writer, I have learned the act of writing is the strongest enhancement, for me, to live the life I want to live and think the thoughts I prefer to entertain. And when I say the act of writing, I’m not talking about cathartic journaling but I’m referring to sculpting a poem or drafting an essay or narrative.

As writers, we enjoy an asset of harvesting meaning and perspective on matters from our lives. This asset contributes positively to our overall health and well being.


Molly O’Dell

Big Dreams and Little Dreams

We all have dreams.  But we are often fearful about voicing them, fearful even about thinking about them. If we dare to dream, it is all the more hurtful if what we wish for does not come to pass, and we don’t want to be hurt. And perhaps, deep down, we may think we are too ordinary, too old, too burdened down with responsibility for the dream to come true for us. We question our worthiness. Who are we anyway to dream such glorious dreams?  But let’s not think that way. The universe wants wonderful things for us. Let’s allow ourselves to dream.

What are your writing dreams?  Do you want to write a mystery novel? A mainstream best-seller? Maybe you want to write a series of short stories or publish a travel guide. Dreaming, yearning, desiring is part of what it means to be human. “To be what can be is purpose in life,” Cynthia Ozick said. Margaret Deland went on to say that “One must desire something to be alive.” And to be truly, exquisitely alive, we must want something so badly we can taste it. We must also keep true to our wishes and hopes in life and work towards realizing them.

As writers, I believe that our dreams are especially wonderful ones, but they do not easily come to pass. “Nothing worthwhile comes easy,” the old saying goes. That is certainly true in the writing life.  And since it can be a long hard road working and waiting for what we yearn for to be realized, I love the idea of working towards lots of dreams—big dreams and little dreams, middle-sized ones too. Maybe we call these goals or objectives, but these are really dreams. So along with our big dreams of writing an award winning mystery or publishing a textbook, we might also work on other goals at the same time. Submit an article to a magazine, write a letter to the editor, try your hand at poetry. If you find that fulfilling, write a series of poems, and submit them for publication. Why not? Are you a science fiction writer who also delights in the joys of home winemaking? Consider writing an article—or even a book–about that. Don’t count anything out. Let your mind open to the possibilities around you and see what happens.

I believe in dreams come true, but I also believe they can come true in ways we do not imagine. My husband, Tom, loved bluegrass music, and wanted to learn to play the banjo. But while waiting for repairs on the broken-down banjo he inherited, he started taking guitar lessons. Then he moved on to the banjo, and because that is a difficult instrument, (and it sounded fun) he cross-trained on the mandolin. So it can be in the writing life, too. We may start out writing poetry and then develop an interest in fiction or non-fiction. Our growing expertise in one area leads to advancement in another.

Again, let’s ask the question—what are your writing dreams and goals? Why not widen them, expand them, let the universe work its magic with the seeds of hope within. Dream big. But dream pint-sized and medium-sized too.  Those little goals have a way of growing and developing in ways that can enrich your life.

Exercise for Writing and Living Creatively:

  1. Brainstorm, writing as quickly as possible your first thoughts to complete the following sentences. Include big ideas and little ones, making a list of as many dreams as possible.
  • I have always wanted to _____________________
  • I would like to try my hand at _________________

Now, select one or two of the items from the list, and take the first step towards making it happen.  Remember, dreams do come true; the first step is to dream them.


Lucy Adkins

Time To Write, Time To Right

Every few months I have a crisis. Whether it’s an existential one or a melodramatic one, it happens nonetheless. Most people might seek professional help or prescribed medication, but talking to strangers and doping myself up with mood relaxers have never been particular interests of mine. I deal with this so-called existence of mine by writing. It might seem too simple or too easy to fix my many problems related to death, fear, failure, and loneliness, but the truth of the matter is that yes, writing is the only thing that can truly help a person deal with their demons.

For writers like my classmates and myself, writing is an unconscious activity. We could do it in our sleep and in fact, sometimes we do, but why is it that for the average person writing is considered a chore when it could prevent a depressed, stressed, or possibly even mad person deal with their problems in ways they have never even considered?

The answer is that everyone is so damn afraid to be honest, to say what they really mean. With writing, you can tell the truth, you can use words and language to state exactly what your mind wants to say. Stop writing off writing as a pedantic activity. You don’t have to be an ivy league graduate to write something intelligent, something sincere.

To paraphrase J.D. Salinger, “I’m not writing for the critics; I am writing for myself.”  Whether you want to share your writing with the world or you only want to keep your writing to yourself, put your thoughts down. Go back and re-read it all. Learn from your mistakes. Go out and make new ones. Write down everything you can think of and then go write some more. It’s therapeutic and it will help you.

Writing is important and ignoring it won’t make it go away. Don’t let the man get you down and even if he does, write about it. Fill notebook after notebook with complaints, poems, stories, and desires. Release the crisis from your body before it has the chance to take you over. Whether you are feeling too much or not enough at all, purge it all onto the keyboard or through your favorite pen. I promise you’ll feel much better, if only for a few moments.


Stacey Renberg

Students, this one is for you.

AWP was great, you met a lot of people and hung out with yours in a different place and time, and you’re exhausted from readings, signings, panels, and talking more than you’re used to. Time to unwind into some reflective contemplation and reinvigorate your game plan. Here are a few you might consider.

1)     Your Literary Citizenship. Just how useful were you over the past year? Did you assist with projects, planning events, edit, design, promote, create audience, write grants, jury fellowships or prizes or retreat residencies, serve on a board or committee, initiate a field worthy movement, compile bibliographies or reading lists, review books, intern, organize in the community, serve where you are needed most, help?

2)     Your Creative Work. Did you keep the promise you vowed to dedicate time to write, revise until you finalize, ingest only that which influences the work and gives the mind & body stamina and endurance to go the full mile, learn a new language, research the unfamiliar, listen to sounds and take in sights you normally would not dare, give yourself applause when you know you are on the right track within the work, celebrate a finished piece by writing its companion, free the writer hiding inside and engage?

3)     The Follow Up. Did you manage to make those open deadlines, keep a regimen of applications, prepare yourself for opportunity, gather your wits, work on long-term goals in your writing, yourself, and your future, make contact with all the people you enjoyed from the past year and discover your professional life is as much about placement as it is creative, seek new ways to support the work without losing a love for life?

Most everyone you will ever meet working in the lit field is engaged in regular contributions. There is so much to be done and so many things unnoticed, you can surely find ways to jump in and readily be a part of. Your mentors are often working on several projects at once, while devoting themselves to the field, and publishing widely, often while teaching full-time at one university and serving a field faculty for low residencies as well. Looking for a service project can bring about essential results that, once completed, people wonder why no one ever did it before, or at least why not in the past fifteen to twenty years. Dedicating yourself to your creative work is the only way to become a practicing writer, for most. Making deadlines can mean opportunity awaits and each juncture is practice for your professional development. Following through is necessary to any achievement. Finding your place in the wide field gives you a room to work within and eventually comfortability, or cause for more work to change things.

Just keep at it and we will see you at residency and at AWP and hopefully, at some point, standing in line to sign your books and celebrate your work and efforts.

For now, here are some samples of citizenship that I was happy to work with in preparation for AWP. For roughly six weeks prior, I worked on about ten bibliographies that the whole field seemed to forget to compile. As founder of an AWP caucus that transitioned to another organizer over the past year, our view of the field for AWP is concerned with the viability of that body of writers significantly. A handful of the caucus came to task, the current organizer, two most recent chairs, founding panelist, and assisting caucus audience member, assisted and enhanced the major list and some of the categories that followed, and the rest came about organically. We are done but we are only just beginning as well (there is so much to do). For now, in this note, it is my hope that all of our students (alumni, faculty, administration) take in these lists as personal reading lists and familiarize themselves with this portion of the field as they grow as writers through readings. With the VIDA count in and a lot of work ahead of us, and a personal focus on understanding matriarchal influence in the lit field, the bibliography attached lists books published by Native Women Poets in the 21st Century, thus far. Keep an eye out for Caucus posts and you will find books from the same in from the 21st Century Turn, a time of departures and much, much, more.

Now that we are done, I wonder what happened to all the critics who used to compile poetry bibliographies. I also wonder if the sense that we can’t be treated as an anthropological/ethnographic study anymore (in contemporary poetry, especially, perhaps, since the release of Sing: Poetry of the Indigenous Americas) serves as a deterrent to those who compiled in the past? Whatever the reason, poets have taken initiative, dedicated and served, followed through and now present some of the bibliographies that speak the times.

Just like we hope you do.

Poetry Volumes of the Twenty First Century Native Women Poets

Keep working.


Allison Hedge Coke.

Is Combining Ideas Our Last Hope for Originality?

As a kid, I was obsessed with being original. Knowing that the world was overflowing with repetition, remakes, reboots, and stolen ideas, I tried to acquire as many personal idiosyncrasies as possible. All I accomplished was turning myself into a pretty weird kid. And as I grew older, I realized that the so-called original stuff I created and the outlandish art I consumed was not really all that extraordinary.

You’d think I’d have gotten discouraged early on and given up on creativity altogether. I knew I’d never write a mind-blowing fantasy epic with characters and concepts nobody on this Earth had ever heard of. I knew I’d never invent some insanely clever card game with mechanics unlike any experience on the shelves. So why didn’t I give up? Why doesn’t anyone else give up, for that matter? Why do creators keep creating?

You’ve probably already heard some form of the adage: there are no new ideas, just new ways to present them. And I think that’s true, to an extent. But I don’t think that’s enough. We may have some great best-sellers being written with semi-original concepts, like the Divergent series—a dystopia disguised as utopia with some unique elements sprinkled here and there. But are those slight twists to a classic plot enough to call the book completely original? I think writers can take their ideas a step further.

Here’s the trick: don’t kill yourself trying to come up with an original idea, come up with a handful of good ideas that work, then mix them together. The ideas will, hypothetically, undergo a kind of chemical reaction, colliding and building off of each other in interesting ways. This will, I think, result in something relatively unique. This doesn’t mean you can simply combine stolen ideas—you have to first apply the skills you already had to come up with something you think is as original as it gets, or at least presented in an original way. Then come up with a few more. Then blend them together in a single work of art.

Let’s take writing, for example, since this blog is based at the UNO MFA in writing program. You come up with a plot you hope is original—maybe about a woman with two prosthetic legs training to be an acrobat who finds herself caught up in a bit of international espionage. Could make for an interesting, albeit bizarre read. But what are the odds that somebody’s already written about a differently-abled acrobat? Or an acrobat involved in espionage for that matter? Ideas that are especially unique run a dangerous risk of seeming like a total rip-off if, by a terrible coincidence, somebody thought of a similar idea. Vague and broad ideas will keep you safer from feeling like a copycat, but you’ll also be stuck with vague and broad ideas.

So how can you keep your acrobat story as fresh and specific as possible? Combine other ideas. Maybe you had another idea for a book about a romance with an intersex man, or a woman who’s trying to escape her past as a contract killer? Is there any effective way to combine these ideas without creating a convoluted story that’s arbitrarily complex? If there is, you might have the building blocks of a story that has a much higher chance of originality. Maybe the acrobat falls in love with the intersex man—the only man who knows about her past as an assassin, and who is inevitably captured by the government until the acrobat agrees to revive her violent skills and kill three prominent politicians.

Now, I just thought up that nonsense on the spot and I’m in no way endorsing that idea as a winner. And, of course, it’s always best to keep things on the simple side. But there’s no reason that that mess of combined ideas can’t provide for a relatively straightforward plot. It’s the original ideas—the concepts of the intersex man and the acrobat that will (hopefully) get you excited and make you confident that you’re doing something no one has attempted before—at least not in this configuration. With all those elements blended, it will open up the plot to all sorts of new and organic connections. It’s not just a book about intersex people and the man’s gender identity, but also how that relates to the woman with prosthetic legs—and possibly the prejudice from the government that captures him. See, the chemical reactions are already happening in my brain and new ideas are flowing. You’ll have to excuse me if this sounds like the worst novel ever imagined, to you. I’m just brainstorming.

Originality for the sake of originality is not something to be sought after on its own merits. If the material isn’t good, no one will care that it’s fresh. And if even it’s a rip-off of something else but is still an amazing work of art, people will probably love it anyway. You have to determine how important it is to do something new. My strategy in combining ideas has always been a method of finding fuel to create. Mixing my ideas doesn’t just supply me with unlimited possible outcomes, it also gives me confidence that I’m not rehashing stuff that’s been done a million times, and it reignites my interest in my own work because of the strange directions I never expected it to take me.

I think a lot of writers already use this strategy, consciously or not. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan tells multiple stories from multiple perspectives, each with different unique concepts. One chapter is written using exclusively power point slides. Another one never introduces a character without soon jumping forward in time to explain what happened in their future. Another chapter is told in second person, which is pretty unique on its own these days.

A similar novel by Kevin Brockmeier, The Illumination, doesn’t simply tell the sad stories of various American lives, but it also envisions a world where physical injuries emit visible light—and it features a child who can feel the emotions of inanimate objects—and it’s got the clever concept of moving from character to character only when one narrator passes off a journal of love notes to the next. That’s all brilliant if you ask me. I challenge you to find another book that’s even remotely similar to that; and it is, essentially a concoction of many combined ideas to make a solid whole.

Combining ideas is effective for other forms of art as well. I would never claim to be a skilled musician, but I did release an experimental music album last year that took full advantage of this idea-combination approach. I wanted to write a series of songs that told fictional stories about love and adventure, but I also wanted to create an entire album of through-composed songs (songs that don’t repeat or use the standard verse-chorus structure). But that wasn’t enough for me. I also decided I wanted to write an entire album of prequel and sequel songs. Groups of songs that go together back to back like partners. One track tells the first half of the story, the track next to it provides the conclusion. And that goes on for the whole album. The finished product may or may not be enjoyable to mainstream ears, but I’m satisfied with the freshness of the concept—a combination of three ideas.

Keep in mind, this whole “combining good ideas” thing is just a thought I’ve had bouncing around in my head for awhile. This blog is sort of my opportunity to spill the thought onto a page and see if it sticks, either for myself or other people. I haven’t thoroughly tested it yet, or proven whether or not it can be done effectively without turning a good idea into a complicated mess of unconnected things. But I do think it can be applied, at least in moderation, to a lot of mediums. Visual art, non-fiction, teaching, dancing, film, you name it. Don’t just paint a picture of an orange, mix orange zest into the paint! Okay, that might be a silly idea, but you get the gist.

The bottom line is this. Chances are, if you’ve got an idea, somebody’s done it. But if you’ve got a handful of ideas, chances are nobody’s done them all at once.

Your Next Writer’s Residency: Right Here, Right Now

The most intensely focused part of any low-residency MFA creative writing program is its residency. Far-flung faculty and students gathered together under one roof for dawn to post-dinner meetings, lectures, readings, and workshops—not to mention the poker and basketball games, late-night tarot sessions, dance parties, and all of those long literary conversations in the Library Bar. Meals are prepared, sheets and towels are changed, and personal obligations are put on hold while the rarefied world of residency convinces us that we were put on this earth to write, rather than trifle with the trappings of day-to-day existence.

The writer’s residencies that exist in the world at large are even bigger and better than an academic residency. More time to write. Exotic or remote and relaxing locales. None of those pesky meetings with mentors. No lecture summaries. Some offer three meals a day prepared by real chefs. There are meditation sessions, tea and coffee at the ready, massage therapists, and esteemed colleagues.

I wrote most of my MFA thesis at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and as an Auvillar Fellow in the south of France. At my last month-long residency at the Virginia Center, I drafted seven short stories. Not a remarkable feat since I could sleep until I awoke naturally between 6:00 and 7:00, then go downstairs to the dining room for my fresh fruit, eggs, and coffee. Cozily ensconced in my writer’s studio, I’d meditate in the overstuffed chair, then cross the room to my desk where I’d begin jotting down notes and shuffling my index cards notes around until a story took shape. There were walks in the woods and swimming when I needed a break. And at the VCCA, each studio is also furnished with a bed in the event that a creative ecstasy brings on an exhausted collapse that requires a nap. Familial obligations, jobs, plumbers, appliance repairmen, divorce mediations, and domestic duties do not exist at writer’s residencies.

In the real world we have an endless stream of legitimate reasons and lame excuses to not write. Funerals, weddings, birthday parties. Sick children. Injured pets. Infirm parents. Jobs that devour our time. Spice drawers that need alphabetizing and closets that must be cleaned right now.

I began writing at the age of 49, and while you might think it should have been painfully obvious that much of my life had ticked away, it wasn’t. Focusing on anything for me requires…..well….focusing—and where was I? Yeah, in my non-residency writing life, I wasn’t much of a writer.

About a year ago, I moved my 89-year-old mother in with me. She’s forgotten how to cook and doesn’t drive. She talks to herself most of the day, and at night shouts in her sleep. Writing became more and more of a refuge for me, and maybe I became a little more respectful of the passage of time. Last week my boyfriend moved into my house as he recovers from surgery that removed a portion of his lung as well as the cancerous mass that was lodged there. He can’t drive either and is prohibited from lifting anything heavier than a phone book.

A few months ago, I finally began polishing those stories I wrote first drafts of in Virginia. The recent days that I spent at my boyfriend’s bedside in the hospital were a writing marathon. Tonight as I sit on my couch next to my 20-year-old cat, I can hear the click and hum of my mother’s oxygen machine and the creak of the bed upstairs as that man I love tosses and turns waiting for the pain pills to carry him off to sleep. Right here, right now this just might be the best writer’s residency of my life.

Social media is your friend, not your enemy: Part 1, Facebook

Too often I hear people spout that social media is the bane of our generation. Many people believe that social media is sucking the life out of relationships, turning us into robots, making us dumb, and overall just a plain bad idea.

I’m here to tell you that while these social media platforms might be overrun with “selfies,” superfluous status updates, and private details about someone’s life that only a medical professional might want to know, once you know the right way to harness social media, you can build a supportive community and gain some major name recognition.

While learning how to wrangle social media for your benefit is way too much information for simply one blog post, let’s dip our toes into the (current) mother of social networking – Facebook.

First things first, you have to set up profile. Instead of grunting and ho-humming your way through this tedious process, think of it as a way to get people to know you. Sign up for Facebook. What are your favorite books? Your favorite authors? Your favorite movies? This is your chance to find people with similar interests and find your community. Spend time searching through pages to find groups that interest you – writers, writing groups, writing advice pages, etc. If you already have a profile, don’t be afraid to revamp it every now and again. The more specific your profile, the more satisfaction you’ll feel from your writing community. Also, don’t forget to add a profile picture!

Once you have your profile set up, it’s time to claim your author page. Many people don’t realize how important that is, so let me tell you – IT IS VERY IMPORTANT. Even if you don’t think you have enough merit yet to have a fan page, you need to claim that page before someone else does. Even if it is just a placeholder with your name and a photo, at least it’s there for when you’re ready for it.

Next, you need to begin finding your community. Find your friends, your family members, your mentors, your role models, anyone who is supportive of you and your goals as a writer. If you aren’t friends on Facebook yet, send those requests! You want to build a large network of supportive peers who will share your work and help you achieve your goals – but remember, you must do the same for them.

Now that you’ve got an awesome profile, a stand-by fan page, and a bunch of supportive friends, it’s time to start posting. The great thing about Facebook is that you can post anything you want, but this is a double-edged sword. You want to be sure you post things that people care about. Don’t let your posts scroll by on someone’s screen – you want them to stand out. Shout-out your publications. Announce writing contests. Share a funny story. Ask a question. But most importantly, keep your audience wanting to interact with you. This will build a supportive and trustworthy community that aids in name recognition.

It’s great if you’re posting a lot of engaging content but remember – you need to engage with others, too. Scroll through your Newsfeed and talk to your friends. Give them a thumbs up on a job well-done. Ask questions about their work. Share their posts with your friends. If you’re supportive, they’ll be supportive of you.

And now, it’s your turn. Go sign up for a Facebook account, and start building your writing community. Don’t forget to send me a friend request.


Jordan Mapes is a Fall 2013 graduate of the UN MFA fiction track. She currently lives in Omaha and works as a copyeditor and a freelance video editor. She is also the current UN MFA media expert and blog manager.

The Importance of Routine

Being a writer is more than hard work: it’s a job. If you’ve never considered writing to be a “real job,” please disabuse yourself of this notion at the door (i.e. right here). The stigma with any job is that, by definition, it’s something you probably either dislike or, at best, tolerate with the only sense of satisfaction mainly coming every other week when you see your paystub. This perception, in fact, is not all together incorrect for a significant number of people. However, there are certainly plenty of people who like their jobs, many of whom even enjoy the “hard work” aspect of said jobs.

Once upon a time, I romantically convinced myself that writing is just such a job, e.g. one that I would like and enjoy (while, yet, still being a job). This part is significant, so consider writing it down.

Writers tend to engage in all kinds of activities to avoid doing what they think of/dread as “real work,” or getting what they call “a real job,” but the pains through which they typically put themselves is far greater than what ultimately amounts to “taking the easy way out” and diving headfirst into a nine-to-five career. I’m using lots of quotes here but it’s only because where these definitions are concerned; your mileage may vary.

Oddly enough, many writers I’ve known have often looked upon nine-to-fives with longing, lachrymose eyes, almost wistful for a job that ends when the clock ticks one last time from 4:59 over to 5:00 P.M. It’s a magical time, this 5:00. It’s a transition into “the world outside.” When it’s officially 5:00, people are expected to leave their work at the office.

Incidentally, a writer’s work is rarely done by 5:00PM (unless s/he does her/his best writing at the crack of dawn, before their day-job, families and/or social commitments steal precious daylight away from them). Of course, there are a few select writers I know earn their crust from writing, but they are, sadly, a stark minority. Mostly, the rest of us teach, edit, freelance, consult, and/or etc. &c. to pay our bills. Even more writers I know have additional familial obligations as well (which, as they will almost certainly tell you, pay nothing at all, monetarily-speaking). As of December 21, 2013, I can also verify this.

Perhaps it’s a way to keep the dream of writing (for a living) alive that we take on so many odds and ends duties for bi-monthly remuneration — a way of staving off the harsh and likely brutal realization that the aforementioned dream may never come to pass. By working multiple jobs doing other things and writing “on the side,” we can still feel like writers — legitimate, “actual/real writers” — even if our tangible output is, by all accounts, diminutive, especially when inevitably compared with our dream output and/or the output of our more prolific writerly friends. We’re still reading and we’re still writing and that fact ultimately feels significant to us.

I submit that plenty writers have bagged it right after they uttered something as simple as, “I’m going to write a novel,” at that one unmemorable dinner party they attended (for example). They then went home after that dinner; they got to work, busted their asses, and wrote their novel. I mean that was it — that’s all they did. It’s not impossible, it’s just kind of . . . uncommon.

My apologies if this missive sounds bleak. Honestly. It’s not intended to be. Rather, it’s hopefully a realistic look at what life is like for writers who aren’t on The New York Times’ Bestseller List . . . for those who’ve published a scant few pieces, or those who haven’t published anything at all. This is not a call to put your pens down, to put your laptops away, and to give up the dream before it consumes and crushes you beneath lofty and unmet expectations. No, this is, in fact, a simple survival guide for a life that more than likely chose you rather than you/it.

Welcome to life as a writer: c. 2014.

Here it is in a nutshell: Do not underestimate the importance of the routine you will have no doubt developed while under the tutelage of your MFA writing mentors. Even though I’m writing this here in black and white, you may think: “It can’t happen to me” (i.e. you). You may think that you could never discard such a thoroughly-honed writing process that you and your mentors spent two years molding into such an exquisitely- and perfectly-balanced shape.

Again: Under no circumstances, whatsoever, should you change your writing routine. Ever. Unless you are dying. That’s a legitimate excuse. It’s about the only acceptable reason you should ever change your writing routine. I’m serious. Don’t change it!

Things begin to happen when you establish a routine (as you already know if you’re currently in a writing program or are just inherently disciplined). Once you practice sitting at the keyboard or notebook every day at the same time, parts of the writing process begin to automate. You don’t typically have to wonder what you’re going to write about or where you’re going to start. When you have a routine, this part will work itself out.

Additionally, the longer you stay away from the keys/pens, the harder it is to get back into any kind of rhythm or momentum you might’ve built. Trust me. During an MFA program, your mentors will prod you and demand work on regular, specific dates. You will pace yourself to meet these deadlines. You will feel good about your work and your output. In the cold harsh real worldpost-MFAyou will probably not have an official mentor, external prodding, deadlines (unless you’ve already locked in a sweet book deal with an agent and editor, et al.), and/or good feelings about your output. You can best that particular set of circumstances fairly easily just by sticking to your routine.

Joseph Michael Owens is the author of the ‘collectio[novella]‘ Shenanigans! and has written for [PANK], The Rumpus, Specter, HTML Giant, Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow & others. He is also the blog editor for both InDigest Magazine and The Lit Pub. You can also find him online at Joe lives in Omaha with four dogs, one wife, and a son.

After Residency, Home

The first few days after residency are always odd ones to navigate. There is a sense of straddling two different realms and a kind of reluctance to let go the one in order to fully inhabit the other.

Back home, after winter residency, Christmas is caught in an almost amber-like stasis. The tree, the lights, the stockings hung by the chimney with care are exactly as I left them. After so much rush and hurry to get ready for the holiday the solitary day between it and the rush and hurry to get ready for residency simply isn’t enough for me to get everything done. I leave up all the décor so that I can take some meditative time to take it down when I get back from Nebraska City. Oddly enough, however, the first days back are just as packed with duties and tasks, joys and sorrows, as were the days leading up to departure.

How Life-like, right?

Added to the quotidian mix is the longing for the Spirit of Residency – that total immersion in the writing culture, the companionship of so many writers who care as deeply as I do about the scope and the minutiae of the writing life. These first days I move slowly back and forth between the housework and the page.

Teri Grimm’s farewell address to the graduating students reminded us all that once we leave that space we become solitary stewards of our own writing, our own art, and that role in our lives is as important as any other caretaker role that belongs to us.

Hers are good words to remember as I take the last big step out of the Lied Lodge and into my “real” life. Taking time to write, nurturing my writing career, continuing conversations about creative work – these are not ornaments to be packed away. These are the things that matter. These are the things we do.


Karen Gettert Shoemaker is the author of The Meaning of Names and Night Sounds and Other Stories. Her awards include a Nebraska Center for the Book Award and Independent Artist Fellowships from the Nebraska Arts Council. She is a faculty mentor with the University of Nebraska MFA in Writing Program.