No Key No Plan

Two years ago, when I was still in college, I decided to put graduate school off for a year. I wasn't wild about a master's degree, I wanted a break, but in this economy, another degree seemed increasingly necessary depending on your field.

For me, that meant a Master of Fine Arts Degree, which sounds important as all hell until you found out what it really is. I worked a bit in that interim year, relaxed, took a road trip and basked in the endless vacation and crippling fear of my uncertain future. When application cycles came around in late 2009, I narrowed down my prospects to 4 California schools. Of those 4, I got into one, where the tuition and fees were so high that it was enough to actually buy you love. The Beatles would've freaked.

So I didn't go, I planned to take another year off, work some more, wallow in limbo, etcetera. It's September again, and application holes have been open for a few weeks. Now is the time that I should get serious, re-editing my edits, thinking, printing and feeling bad. But I'm afraid I'm not so sold on graduate school anymore.

I'm not arrogant enough to believe that my writing is good, or at least, good enough. I can recognize that there is a whole different higher plane of quality that I have not attained in order to be publishable or capable of getting into any school on this Top 50 MFA Programs list that came in my latest issue of Poets & Writers. This is not self-deprecation, or false humility, this is just a realistic evaluation that I have grown to comfortably accept.

I am, however, arrogant enough to believe that I can become good enough. I am confident that with enough reading, writing, and thinking in the dark that I could reach a level of quality that does not make me tingle with shame. But how long would that take? Do I want to work on my craft for a year or two and then go to graduate school at 26? Then after that, there's the inevitable directionless search for meaningful work, panhandling for publishing opportunities, working for years on a book that sells 4,000 copies in a year if you're miraculously lucky.

I know the obvious response to that is: If you're writing because you want to make money, you're doing it wrong. That is duly noted, and I agree. I will always write for passion. But writing takes a lot of forms, and recently I have been wondering if my aspirations towards literary fiction and Serious Writing are the result of my undergraduate training. I will always love prose, and I will always do it so long as it gives me some kind of joy. But I don't know if that is what my natural inclination is, I don't know if that's what my world view has trained me to do.

Literary fiction and acclaimed prose take a very specific set of writing skills: a penchant for beautiful sentences, the ability to deeply embed subtext, and an instinct for weaving the theme into the DNA of every line. These are things that I am not presently good at, but logically could get good at with enough brow sweat. But in the past, I found the most fun, and most ease, in other areas: breaking plots, infusing wit, building story arcs. These are all pop-fiction or TV/Film writing skills where plot and economy are more valuable than diction and subtext.

Francine Prose, a literary critic and author, was shocked to find graduate students that haven't read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. I still haven't worked up the heart for Brothers Karamazov. Am I someone who has eaten junk food all his life, attempting to turn things around and become a nutritionist? Should I just work at a junk food factory, which pays more anyway?

Bad metaphor aside, its not like getting into TV/Film writing is any easier than getting into literary fiction. The prize at the end is more financially rewarding, but TV/Film is a ridiculous long shot. The process of getting into writing for TV and film, as I understand it, is this: Take a lot of non-paying production assistant gigs, network that into paying production assistant gigs, and then network that into getting an agent, and then working with your agent into getting you one of the very few, limited spots in television writing staffs. Each step of that process is stacked against you.

By the way, do any of you have any connections to production assistants in LA? I could really use some help getting into that exclusive slush pile of resumes.

If I choose to try and pursue a TV/Film route, how long will that take? Is the time it takes to break into Hollywood shorter than the time it takes to get better at writing literary fiction? One option deals with the intangibles of luck, and the other deals with the intangibles of talent. There is no telling, and I feel nothing in my gut.

I read the account of a cartoonist at San Diego Comic-Con who made history comics, and wondered if their background and passion for classic literature made them incapable of writing something that was popular. I had never considered that perspective. I had always felt guilty for reading more Morrison than Austen, more Ellis than Chekhov. But maybe I should just indulge in this weakness and write what comes more naturally, instead of engaging in mental self-flagellation for not being more inclined to the high calling of Serious Books.

But I loved working towards that old goal, thinking in those terms, and feeling like you were doing the beautiful emotional cartography that comes with prose. I loved the idea of retreating into your mind for a year and a half and coming out with an edited manuscript. I worry about falling out of the path that I have been pointed toward just because it is not easy. Because I know this is how it works, this is how those people who seemed like they were destined for history end up disappearing. The people who fall into mediocrity are the people who don't stick through the hardships long enough.