I have known for years of a seed sprouting in my belly. It is either a watermelon or a wordy thing waiting to be written out, and for a long time I have been acting in all kinds of bizarre ways (frightening the neighbors and worrying my parents) to try to make it grow: drinking gallons and gallons of water, swallowing clods of dirt, walking around with my head thrown back and my mouth open to let in the sun.
I took lower-paying jobs with fewer hours so I could spend those free hours writing. I dallied in positions that weren't meant to be careers, merely placeholders (cat-sitter, grammar teacher to ballerinas). I stayed in on weekend nights to sit in front of my computer, and ended relationships with partners who weren't supportive of my art—and I did call my writing art, even though I felt crazy for doing so. I defended my decisions against all the skeptics, including myself. After my acceptance letter came from Michigan, I walked around for weeks with a pressure in my throat, as though the vine inching its way up my esophagus was now growing furiously and was finally ready to appear.
That was almost two years ago now. In May I'll graduate with my MFA in fiction writing. "What will you do when you're finished here?" my composition students ask. "What will you do after this?" They are bright, practical pursuers of biochemistry and nursing and business.
I tell them honestly that I'm not sure, although I don't admit I'm worried. With my MFA, I am technically qualified to teach writing at college; in this job market, the odds are I won't be doing that. As invaluable as these two years of study have been, the MFA degree itself feels like little more than a label. "Writer," it says. But that doesn't mean there's a writer inside, any more than a tattoo on my belly—watermelon—means that I've been cultivating a rind fruit in there. And it doesn't change the fact that the world is not a friendly place for writers, MFA'd or not.
Of course, figuring out how to live in this world is not only a writer's affliction. Each person has to wake up every morning and determine how she is going to survive, how to manage the economies of life, how to create room within these economies for what she loves. But for the writer, this task is particularly difficult, in part because the choice to create a life of letters is a choice that has to be made every day, even on the days that don't seem fruitful.
The writer's work is often unpaid or underappreciated or unwanted or simply unread. She writes alone, and this act requires such continued energy and such concentration that it might consume her, inside out, like vines curling around the intestines. When I get up from an especially good writing day, I have been so long in my mind that I sometimes find it hard to speak in the other world. Other times, when another rejection letter arrives or the right sentence evades me—yet again—or the wintery slush leaks in through my old boots, I'll put my head down on my desk and wish that I had been born some other, some more practical me, a me who had gone to law school, a me who cared about the state of her boots as much as the state of her stories.
How, then, will I sustain both a writing life and a life that supports my writing? We talk a lot in my cohort about building our own homemade "fellowships," patching together odd jobs (cat-sitting, teaching grammar to ballerinas) that might leave us enough time to continue our obsessions with words.
I don't know what I'll be doing next year. But the only option seems to be this: When you know you have a seed in your belly—when you hear that seed rattling around in your gut, when you feel the roots burrowing inside, taking hold—you have to keep going. You must keep on. Open-mouthed and facing the sun. Dirt under your fingernails. And you write and you write and you write and you hope for a good harvest.