On Being an MFA Student Writing from Home During the Coronavirus
March 25, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Kristen Dalli
As an MFA student in the midst of writing a thesis, I’m always looking for more time to write. When classes, meetings, and assignments all migrated online in the last week, I thought having more time at home would mean more time to write. This was the perfect excuse for me to finish my thesis.
I should’ve known it wouldn’t be as easy as that. Writing is hard enough without the general anxiety about the state of the world interrupting motivation that is already hard to come by. Regardless, I spent the better part of the last week beating myself up over not getting enough work done, not making enough progress, and feeling the looming panic of how quickly my next deadline is approaching.
Sleep, too, has been hard to come by. As I was lying awake in bed recently, tossing and turning and talking myself out of panic, I thought back to the conversations I’ve had with friends in my MFA program. I certainly wasn’t alone in my feeling; we all were struggling to sit down, focus, and write.
The longer I lay there not sleeping, the more I thought about the things that have helped me – and the things that have definitely not helped me try to get words on the page. And how in these times of uncertainty, it’s important to find comfort in the things we hold dear. So, my fellow MFAers, here are some “do’s and don’ts” that could help make writing from home during these uncertain times even a little bit easier.
Do: Anticipate that writing will be hard. And that it’s hard for everyone.
As an MFA student, there is always a deadline – or three – looming. Despite everything going on in the world, I was treating my writing the same as it’s always been. I was mentally calculating how many days I had left until I had to submit more work, and weighing the pros and cons of skipping a day or two of writing. I also assumed I was the only one feeling the weight of these uncertain times in my writing practice.
As my friends made clear, I am not alone in my struggles. We all were having a hard time. In a low-residency program, self-motivation and focus are crucial, and both have been incredibly hard to come by recently. This is normal. Expect some bumps in the road.
Don’t: Deprive yourself of breaks.
I’m always worried that I’m not doing enough for my thesis. I’m not writing enough, editing enough, reading enough. It’s hard giving myself space and distance, and it’s even harder when self-quarantining has given me a seemingly endless amount of time. Last week, I wrote three pages. Every day that I couldn’t do more than edit a few paragraphs, I grew increasingly more frustrated with myself. I should be doing more, I kept thinking.
That line of thinking wasn’t helping. It was making me more anxious. After I gave myself a few days of absolutely no thesis-related work, I was able to reopen the document and actually do work I felt good about. I’m still not firing off pages, but I feel better equipped to make incremental progress day after day. Give yourself some space to breathe. To bake. To read something that inspires you. To watch a new show on Netflix. To take a walk. To color. And then come back to writing.
Do: Reach out to your friends and faculty members.
We’re all in this together. We’re all trying to figure out how to incorporate writing into the rest of our new indoor routines. No one knows what it’s like to doubt your work, your routine – all of it – better than other writers. My group chat of MFA friends has been an endless stream of support, shared worries, and distracting memes to get us all through the day.
While we’re all social distancing, it can be hard to feel connected to people – especially those we’re used to seeing and talking with on a regular basis. Writing is a solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Stay in touch. Check in regularly. It makes all the difference.
Don’t: Give up.
Writing is always hard. Being an MFA student is always hard. There have been several times over the last week where I’ve thought about how inconsequential it all feels in the face of a global pandemic. I couldn’t see the point in sitting in front my laptop and watching my cursor blink back and forth, taunting me for an hour, while the whole time I’m so anxious about everything else going on in the world.
I couldn’t stop thinking about how silly it felt to even be writing what I’m writing, or writing at all, for that matter. Given the state of the world, everything has felt so trivial and unimportant.
I don’t think it is, though. Celebrate every new word, sentence, paragraph, and page. Big or small, what you’re doing counts. We always need stories. We always need art. Hang in there. Don’t give up.
Kristen Dalli is an emerging writer from New York. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor’s degree in English, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fairfield University, where she serves as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of CausewayLit, and as an Assistant Editor for Brevity. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in Stone Canoe and For Women Who Roar.