There were maybe five full minutes in my MFA studies, when I imagined myself as a full-time writer. We, all of us writers and poets, spend some time with that day dream. But for some of us the possibility of that lifestyle (because it is a lifestyle) is quickly interrupted by real life: the bills, the debt, the lack of time, the lack of discipline, and the desire for real-life relationships. Whatever the reasons are, many of us will never be those people (icons, martyrs, saints) with coffee mugs and oak desks watching the sun rise as they craft sentences. And of those folks, even fewer will be able to earn a living. The odds are ever not in our favor. My graduate mentor, Chris Howell, offered a solution to this problem of writing versus living called the Muffin Man. Basically, you found a job that only required you to work really early or really late, a job that paid the bills (barely) but didn’t require much mental strain or consume your every waking minute, so you could dedicate that free time to your writing. He never offered any advice on how to maintain relationships with your partners or family or how to be sociable, probably because he wasn’t one to speak about something he wasn’t an expert at himself.
Being the Muffin Man or Muffin Lady is a very simple straightforward solution, and one that kept me awake for many nights after I graduated from the program and drifted from place to place without purpose. But I found that even when I was being the muffin maker I wasn’t writing. Even with free time, I still did not have the discipline necessary to get to the desk every day. It took me a long time to admit to myself that I am horribly lazy writer, almost offensively so. I was content to wait for the muse. I looked around at my classmates, at friends who were still getting to the desk every day, still sending out work regularly, who still feel the fire that I felt briefly in graduate school, and I didn’t see myself. I looked at them and I felt envy. I wanted that same desire to be focused and driven, but it wasn’t there, no fire in my belly, no flame at all. And so for while, I felt discouraged. No poems floated in my head.
Once, I knew I wasn’t going to be like J.K. Rowling, I was miserable, and made anyone around me miserable. I was like Pig-Pen from Charlie Brown and the Peanuts, except my dirt cloud was my bad attitude. I felt like a failure, like I’d given in. It felt dramatic, even while I was in the middle of feeling it. Most of us know that we’ve been taught to fear failure, but I thought because I knew not to fear failure that I didn’t. But I did, of course, I did and still do. So it was a surprise that what turned it around for me was a simple bit of advice from a friend, one I hadn’t lost to my bad attitude stench. It wasn’t even directly related to writing. He told me to run my own race. So simple, almost annoyingly easy, and yet it changed everything for me. In our time of Facebook, when our lives keep ticking by with every update of the newsfeed, you can feel as if you’re not measuring up or that everyone else is miles ahead. But when Sandy told me to stop looking around and to run my own race, it was like those Claritin commercials — just like that, I could see. I started running my own race, the very best race that I could run with eyes on the horizon.
I let go of the unreasonable expectations I’d been holding on to about writing. Writing would not be my career. Instead, I made one small decision about who I wanted to be. I made another small decision about who I wanted to be with. And then I made one more very small decision about where I wanted to live. One foot in front of the other foot, over and over again. And the world didn’t cave in around me. But a funny thing did happen. I started writing again. Not every day, and almost never with coffee, but I was writing. And I kept writing — long past the time I thought I would, and I still am, right now, to you.