Completing my MFA; Entering the Void

Photo credit: Heyli Howard (photo taken at E’s high school graduation).

Normally, by this point in the school week, I would have long since written the requisite blog post for my Immersion in Publishing class. This week, however, I’ve been dragging my heels. When I paused to assess the reason for this uncharacteristic procrastination, I realized it was because I was putting off an ending.

With this post, I am completing my last assignment for this class, which is the last class of my MFA program. The moment I post this on my blog (and in Canvas, the online platform utilized by Bay Path), I will essentially be done with my MFA (aside from a few final responses to classmates and one last class this coming Thursday). As much as I’ve looked forward to (even counted down the weeks) to the ending of my MFA program, now that it is upon me, I feel myself hitting the brakes. Why is that?

It’s been a good week to contemplate the nature of endings. My son, Ethan, just completed his last college class on Friday; he’ll be graduating with a BFA in painting and drawing next weekend. For me, that is an ending to celebrate. Back in 2007, when my ex-husband lost everything (thankfully we were already divorced five years at the time and so my finances were no longer tied to his—with the exception of losing child support payments for a time), I had no idea how I’d manage to pay for our two kids’ college educations (although still four and six years ahead). It had always been my goal (was once my ex’s goal too) to do this for Han and E.

In the end, everything worked out. We lived frugally and (thanks to a promotion at work) I saved lots of money in CDs when interest rates were still high. Remarrying helped free up my savings towards Han and E’s college. Plus, my ex was finally able to help out with E’s college. Now, I’ve (*we’ve) done it. I’ve put Han and E. through college. Ethan—bless his heart—knew this distinct goal of mine and he congratulated me (Yes, he congratulated me!) on the day he completed college. So, I’ve done what I set out to do, a commitment made when my ex and I divorced. I’ve completed the raising of those two kids (which is not to say that Han doesn’t still call me every weekend, seeking advice). The rest is up to them.

It’s interesting how easily I celebrate the end of my children’s college years, but my own grad school completion, not so much. I think this is because my own ending creates a void. It’s the void of “what’s next?” especially when you’re a creative and the path is not obvious (as it might be to someone graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering). I see Ethan entering the void as well; he spent yesterday updating his artist web site. Anticipating the void, Kate Whouley, the instructor of my two publishing classes, asked us to draft and submit a signed writer’s contract. My professors have done their part. The rest is up to me.

The void created in the absence of the MFA program is mine to fill. To fill the void, I will keep writing.

The truest thing I’ve learned over the past three years of this MFA work is that I am a writer. Submitting pieces and receiving rejections is a part of the game. Having an essay or poem rejected is an ending (of the hope you had). It creates a void. To fill that void, I’ve learned to do one of three things: revise the piece (again), put it aside to mature (and then revise), or submit it immediately to another publication. This game is always half terror, half hope. But the act of writing (into the void) is what I love and that is why I’ll keep writing.

In honor of this ending, I compiled a list of my top ten hardest endings (in no particular order):

  1. 1999: A soulful friendship lost
  2. 1979: My black tuxedo kitten—Uncle Beethoven—run over by a car
  3. 1986: End of gymnastics career with back injury sustained during a vault
  4. 2016: A soulful friendship lost
  5. 2009: Putting my daughter Hannah on a plane, heading alone to Japan, effectively ending her childhood
  6. 2005: A soulful friendship lost
  7. 1988: The summer before college, when I was too entrenched in a binge eating disorder to feel (or understand) my high school losses
  8. 2014: My mom selling “our share” in the family cabin that my grandfather built and my last visit as an “owner”
  9. 2002: The end of my parent’s marriage, because it came the same year as my own divorce and their ability to parent me (as an adult child) came to an end exactly when I was in need of extra support
  10. 1984: The year my brother Scott headed to California on his red Kawasaki motorcycle, my brother Rob moved to the Twin Cities, and my brother Chris returned to college, leaving me home alone to referee my parents’ chaotic marriage

Not all endings are necessarily negative. And even with the “bad” ones above, I can now see what eventually came in to fill the void (except when Uncle Beethoven died). To end on a positive note, here are my top five endings (in no particular order):

  1. 2002: End of my marriage
  2. 2009: Remarriage ends my years of being single
  3. 2017: Second child of my first marriage completes college and I achieve one of my top five lifetime goals by seeing my oldest two kids through college
  4. 2010: Han home from Japan (end of Rotary year)
  5. 1998: End of short career practicing law

And now, I enter the void; I enter a time of waiting for new structures and experiences to add shape to my writing life.

*My husband, my ex, my ex’s spouse, and me

Outside Writerly Longing

On September 30, 2016, I was privileged to spend time with the Editorial Director of Beacon Press (“Beacon”), Gayatri Patnaik, via a phone interview. Patnaik has been at Beacon for fourteen years. Speaking with Patnaik brought me back to some of my own career memories. I spent time on the editorial side of publishing, in an acquiring editor role, as well as Publisher of the West Academic imprint. If I’d stayed in my role at West, I too would be celebrating my fourteenth year with that publishing business.

In talking to Patnaik, I was reminded of the joys (and yes, some of the stresses) of working in publishing. The interview served as an interesting touchstone for me; it provided both a glimpse into my past and a contemplative look towards my potential future, as I consider what road to take—from a career standpoint—with my MFA in Creative Nonfiction.

As much as I’ve wanted to be a writer—and spent a good deal of time bemoaning my lack of time to write when I was in an editorial role (a review of my religiously maintained journals reveals how often I expressed longing for time to write back then)—I find myself wondering if I might not want to return to a publishing career. I’ve been known to say that acquiring books and assisting authors in the “birthing” of their books can be nearly as exciting as publishing your own book (although I’ve never published a book, so I don’t actually have a basis for comparison).

To the above point, Patnaik was excited to tell me about one of “her” books—meaning one that she signed and edited—that was to publish just days after our interview. The book, entitled “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, written by Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz and Dina Gilo-Whitaker, is also part of a new series that Patnaik is developing. To get a feel for the kind of writing in this book, check out the blog entry by one of the book’s authors, called “Surfing and Indigeneity,” which can be found on Beacon Broadside.

I think it would be an honor and privilege to be a Beacon editor, to be part of the kind of intellectual, progressive, yet accessible titles that Beacon publishes. Title’s like Beacon’s backlist title and top-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, which is a book that changed my life (multiple times).

Even after we discussed Patnaik’s typical day at Beacon, which often involves back-to-back meetings, and I learned that Patnaik’s hands-on editing tends to take place during her evenings and weekends, I still asked her (feeling a little foolish) if she too was a writer. Ms. Patnaik took my question in good humor, for which I was very grateful (at every juncture, she was a gracious interviewee). She acknowledged that a fair number of those drawn to editorial careers have aspirations of writing (some manage to do both); she is not one of them. She has, however, always loved books and reading. She often advises would-be writers, applying for editorial positions, to consider taking a job that supports their writing and leaves them more time to write.

I felt somewhat in awe (and envious) of Patnaik’s ability to inhabit her role so passionately and completely, without feeling the uncomfortable polarity of wanting something else. I said, “you probably have a lot of peace with your role.” In reply to my comment, she said, “I think so.”

I realize now that, to her, my question may have seemed “out of context” because she herself was not privy to all of the inner conflict that I suffered from while working as an editor, always longing to be writing my own words. During this time “off” that I’ve taken to raise my son, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with longing to return to my prior role in the publishing world, even though this time has allowed me the opportunity to explore my own writing and pursue an MFA.

I find myself wondering if the desire to write is more curse than blessing. People who manage to live outside this longing seem such well-balanced, healthy individuals. To exist outside the writerly drive, seems kind of like bliss. Perhaps, after this mid-career writing and parenting hiatus, I’ll reenter the publishing world with balanced contentment.

Publishing Terminology in Context

I spent a decade in the legal publishing industry as an editor, acquisitions editor, then publisher. During my time in publishing, I believe I encountered all of the terms and jargon used in the publishing world. These terms, however, weren’t always so clear. During my first months as an acquisitions editor, I remember attending the weekly production meeting and feeling like everyone around me was speaking a foreign language; quite frankly, they were.

The bulk of these production meetings entailed slogging through lengthy spreadsheets of frontlist titles. The folks in production checked in with the editors—who connected with authors prior to the meeting—about the potential for missed deadlines. During the meeting, editors would give the production team a good sense about titles that could be expected in the next few weeks, as well as “pushing out” titles that would be slipping (at times, titles would be pushed out an entire year—getting “bumped” off the frontlist—at the request of the author).

The production team never arrived empty-handed, but would bring a variety of items related to the editors’ books in process. These items, such as front matter and cover design mock ups, required editorial sign off. Each week we’d also do one last check on print runs before books went to press. It was important to provide as accurate as possible an estimate, so that we wouldn’t have to destroy stock as it returned to us from bookstores. Our books were rarely taken out of print—instead, we’d publish an updated edition as new legal decisions arose, which significantly changed the law.

During my first few months in these production meetings, I’d hear terms such galleys, gutters, trim size (I was even provided my own special ruler for measuring “picas”—as if I knew what picas were), and signature pages (which consist of the smaller grouping of pages stitched or glued together to comprise a book). Back then, I would have been overjoyed to have been provided the links to some online lexicons of publishing terms.

I eventually picked up the jargon and even spent time down in the bindery, sometimes checking out the covers of a new series that I developed, sometimes approving the first few printed copies of an important title. Occasionally, we’d bring in authors for advisory board meetings and we’d all tour the bindery together. It is truly awe-inspiring to watch books being made. If you ever have a chance to tour a bindery, I highly recommend you take advantage of the opportunity. Although I worked for a legal publishing company, books from publishing houses all over the country were printed in our bindery. I was quite amused when I once saw paperback romance novels—with their ripped-bodice cover art—stacked beside formal leather-bound law dictionaries.

Interestingly, I encountered one term in this lexicon that I hadn’t previously known: black swan, which is defined as a book that proves an unexpected success. The Harry Potter series is considered a black swan. I guess we didn’t have many such “black swans” in the legal publishing industry, but as an acquisitions editor, you’d hope to acquire that occasional “home run” casebook that managed to capture a substantial percentage of the market from a competitor’s title that dominated a particular subject. We had one such title in the area of Criminal Law. I am still friends with the author of that book and plan on telling him that his book is a “black swan.” Unfortunately, I was not the acquiring editor of this “best selling” (in the academic publishing world, “best selling” translates into “widely-adopted”) title.

Perhaps I can write a black swan one day; a girl can dream!

I took this photo at an editorial meeting, showing the less serious side of editors.