On Finishing Your MFA in Poetry

by Jessica Lohafer

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Everything you hate about yourself.

Everything I hate about myself, who?

Shut up, you’re a failure.

*            *            *

I am writing terrible jokes about therapy. This is my life after graduate school. Each day is filled with an exciting cycle of emotions: joy, indignation, crying, panic that I’m doing it right, panic that I’m doing it wrong, concern that I haven’t gotten married yet, exhaustion, jealousy, obsession, joy, crying, momentary awareness of my place in the universe and the terrible beauty of being really alive, disgust at my body, more crying, and subsequent obsessing over every woman my boyfriend has ever dated.
Then I go to work.

Sometimes I wonder if my brain has simply filled in the gaps that classes took up, hungry to work out a new issue, a new emotional hazard. I used to write critical responses to pop culture, grade hundreds of pages of English 101 papers. I would bartend, write poems, volunteer for a feminist literary organization, edit a graduate school journal, and then get high, eat dinner and go to sleep. Grad school anxiety came with the dead weight of imposter syndrome, a constant fear of getting caught, of not being good enough or smart enough. It didn’t matter how much I was doing, I was never doing enough. Sure, it was completely unsustainable, but at least it gave the days a rhythm. A structure.

Now I am free of structure. Full of student debt. Still bartending but also working my first honest to god grown up job, as the planner of a writers conference. I get to email authors who make me swoon; I re-read their rejection letters like they’re secret notes from a crush, Thanks for asking, but I’ll be out of the country.
Most of the time, I deal with writers who are closer to home, my friends, even. On good days, their emailed confirmations feel like tiny victories: yes! One of us! We’re doing this thing! On bad days, they feel like proof positive that I’m still one book deal behind.

I don’t write anymore, hardly at all. On lunch breaks, I try to scribble out a few words, song ideas for a musical, plot notes for the short stories I want to finish. It isn’t enough. My boyfriend and I make plans for my new writing structure; we will make sure I focus on my craft, now that I’ve moved into my new studio apartment. We won’t spend all winter watching Friends on Netflix. But it isn’t enough. I am always the thing that is in my way, always creating conflict. Some people keep themselves from their art because they are afraid of success, afraid of their own greatness. Sometimes I think I avoid writing because I would rather do almost anything else.

A few months ago, I taught a poetry workshop at the Fairhaven library. The median age was 65. These students were invested, excited; they wanted to hug me before class. Walking into the room, they would see me and say, “Oh! You must be the poet!” They made me feel like a real writer and I fucking loved it. During the session, I talked about what a turn does in poetry. I said the turn was something that caught the reader off guard, was completely unexpected, but still felt earned. You might not have known it was coming but it still made sense.

This essay wants to end in the dark, wants to tell you there’s nothing that can be done. That all of your hard work will never amount to anything you can put your hands on. And it might not.

But, you will keep writing. And I will keep writing. Because we have no choice.

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