DIY MFA: How Did You Become a Writer?

I’m not sure I have become a writer.

I wrote my first story in fifth grade. I described in excruciating detail how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my mother’s kitchen. My mother’s kitchen was a tall person’s kitchen — everything was on the top shelf of the highest cabinet. I had a blast describing how I’d climb the cabinets to get the peanut butter, the hunt for the ever-disappearing grape jelly in the monster-cold refrigerator. I mean, I just had fun telling this idiotic little how-to story. So for that hour, while I wrote my PB&J instructional, I was a writer — even though I didn’t know, quite, what “writer” meant.

I love office supplies. I’m an office supply art freak, and I swear that has everything to do with my desire to, you know — spend time playing with office supplies. Whether I’m bending paper clips into desk sculptures or painting with whiteout correction fluid on colored sticky notes, I’m all in.

I also love computers. I love typing! I’ve learned to love mousing, and recently, using the touchscreen. Word is an amazing program. Excel, too! To be honest, I loved computers before there was an Internet available to me. They are like a giant, electrified office supply, and I make a point of using them every day.

I like the act of writing and all the toys that come with it.

After excelling in AP English, I knew where I felt at home scholastically. Although I had a false start as a biology major, I fairly quickly changed course to major in English Composition (basically, creative writing). I interned at a small literary agency, and learned that working in book publishing meant I could continue to study the things that most interested me — reading, writing, and more reading — and have health insurance and a 401(k). My plans for life were as painfully practical as that PB&J instructional was detailed. I had no idea what was in store for me.

I love the business of writing, and for many years, this has sustained me. It has meant quashing my creative inclination while I worked at times like a madwoman to keep up with aggressive production schedules, though. Think Lucy and Ethel on the assembly line. Or heck, Laverne and Shirley. I was having fun, but part of me was killing time.

Growing up in Yalesville within easy bicycling distance of the Yalesville Children’s Library made reading easy. I spent many, most, days lazing in the book aisles, crouched on the step stool reading until the library closed. The world would stop when I was reading. I had nothing monumental to escape. Reading wasn’t saving me from a punishing reality. I just enjoyed the act. Immersing myself in stories, and then sitting at my student desk (I loved that desk) drawing Bambi, and Dorothy, and Asian, and whichever scenes most stuck with me from the afternoon.

It was an epiphany when in college I rediscovered that I could reach this state of immersion by writing, the same way I reached it by reading and reimagining what I’d read when I was growing up in the Children’s Library. It was an exercise without an audience, though. I mean, I was studying writing, but I was reluctant to consider myself a writer. I needed readers.

And there’s the disconnect: Life acted up, as life does, throwing me into survival mode. I set my art aside and past the point when necessary, have left it aside. And you know how it is — you are what you do. I spend a lot of time editing for freelance dollars. I haven’t written creatively in quite some time, years. (Writing this felt great, though.)

“Writer” doesn’t seem attainable to me. I’ll always strive to be a writer, but I don’t see myself achieving it. I won’t be my favorite writer; I’ll be me, playing with office supplies and Microsoft Word, writing. It’s this striving, the act of writing, the immersion exercise, that matters most to me.

You are what you do, etc.

Failure Is Important, Mr. Serling

Despite all his successes, including The Twilight Zone and (I didn’t know this) Planet of the Apes, Rod Serling thought he was a failure. From Rod Serling’s last interview before his death in 1975, courtesy of

God knows when I look back over 30 years of professional writing, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything that’s important. […] Some things are literate, some things are interesting, some things are classy, but very damn little is important.

The writer at aptly observed:

“Anyone who believes him would have to be living in another dimension.”

If someone as intellectually and artistically successful as Rod Serling can feel like a failure, maybe we’re selling ourselves short, too. I’m prone to ruminating and perfectionism (which I realize makes me sound like a blast to hang out with), and I see that as mostly surmountable. Sort of hard to articulate as a New Year’s resolution, though.

How about this:

Fail and fail often! Fail until you succeed. Try hard, try very hard. Just because you fail, doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

This is me trying hard to update my blog every week or two. And if I fail, it will be because I have something amazing to say when I return. Like Rod Serling thought he was a failure, too.

Happy New Year. 🎊