Attending the MFA Summer 2019 Residency as an alum was wonderful—not the least because having completed the program, I understood the program elements as they were introduced and how they worked together. The point of seminars was marvelously clear; the purpose and value of annotations was evident; and the camaraderie of fellow writers was like butter. Producing five packets spread over the sixteen weeks with their rhythm of new work, revisions, and annotations (reading to learn craft) created—I see now—a discipline and structure that fostered regular productivity.
With graduation, the scaffolding of the program disappeared. Even though the program had taught me about the importance of regular practice, I discovered that developing a writing practice was messy and confusing. I tried to write in the mornings; I tried to write always in the evenings. I tried notebooks, word-processors, loose, lined and unlined paper. I made schedules: draft at night; type up in the morning; revise in the afternoon. Sometimes the scheduling worked; sometimes it didn’t.
A few years ago, as a college professor, struggling to overcome perfectionism and learn from mistakes I adopted the maxim, “Fall down six times, get up seven.” This maxim about persisting speaks to me more than the self-talk of the little train that could (I think I can, I think I can). My internal prattle (I don’t think I can, I don’t think I’ll ever) drowns out the times I’ve tried to emulate the little train.
The saying, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” affirms the assumption that success at first attempt is the benchmark, an assumption that inflames my perfectionist streak. Nor does it seem apt for producing creative works. Powerful works of art are rarely produced in one go. Nor does success at writing one story, poem or book guarantee that the next creative product will manifest in the same way. Every work has its own rhythm and way of emerging. “Fall down six time, get up seven” not only admits that making a way requires error and restarts, but also that a lengthy learning curve might be needed.
In her book, A Writer’s Guide to Persistence, Jordan Rosenfeld affirms persistence as a key value and gives practical strategies for both mind and body to creating a writing practice.
Persistence “comes not from mental acuity or super strength but from finding the deep meaning and joy at the root of your writing practice and calling on this joy to get you through the challenges” (1).
Why do we write? What do we want to accomplish by writing? Naming one’s personal connection to writing fortifies a writer against the push and pull of others’ perceptions. Rosenfeld does not suggest we only think about why we write—she instructs: list your reasons for writing; take the top five and journal about each one for at least five minutes. “Seeing the reasons behind your work can go a long way toward empowering you as a writer” (14).
Writing what we most want to write, for the reasons we want to write, in the voice and genre we want makes us vulnerable. While feeling vulnerable can be alarming, it is a place of strength and the source of authenticity. Being grounded, a writer can persist in his or her practice.
Rosenfeld asserts that no effort is ever wasted. To claim a writer’s identity is to embark on an apprenticeship that has at least two components, the writing and interacting with writers. Rosenfeld asks one to list at all that one has written—from newsletters, college papers, columns, blogs, journal entries, PR releases, drafts. All this writing, published or not, has been practice. Classes taken, readings and conferences attended, writers groups formed or joined; writing or editing for volunteer projects or for pay; giving feedback—all this is practice as well. Writing or interacting, both components contribute to a writer’s apprenticeship. Especially if one is worried by lack of publication, acknowledging how many ways a writer has exercised his or her gifts reinforces the desire to continue to write.
Rather than frame persistence solely in terms of overcoming obstacles, or continuing against odds, Rosenfeld connects persistence to seeking what engages one’s sense of “rightness,” itself an expression of synchronicity. Synchronicity is a Jungian term for the mysterious, non-personal way in which events draw together for a positive, unexpected outcome.“Synchronicity is the way the muse speaks to you—it’s one part your subconscious mind making connections that your conscious mind misses, thus urging you toward opportunities, and another part the language of patterns, a quantum physics of creativity at work. You must look for it.” (68).Openness to synchronicity—even better logging incidents of it, according to Rosenfeld—connects a writer to a deeper mystery than his or her own will.