I’m a believer in the Malcolm Gladwell theory that the only way to succeed—as a writer, an artist, a musician, even a hockey player—is to put in the time it takes to work through the bad stuff so you can
get to the good stuff.
Molly McCaffrey is the author of the short story collection, HOW TO SURVIVE GRADUATE SCHOOL & OTHER DISASTERS, and the co-editor of COMMUTABILITY: STORIES ABOUT THE JOURNEY FROM HERE TO THERE. Her blog, I WILL NOT DIET, encourages readers to reject dieting in favor of healthy living and a positive body image. She teaches at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where she lives with her husband, novelist David Bell. She is also a six-year survivor of graduate school.
Visit her website: http://www.mollymccaffrey.com
How Molly McCaffrey Became a Writer
This is the third installment in the new How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions.
Thanks to Molly McCaffrey for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
Wow, that’s a question, isn’t it? It took me a long time to find writing, so you’ll have to bear with me as I explain my roundabout path to becoming a writer.
I’ve been an avid reader my whole life. My sister claims that I wouldn’t play games with her as a kid because I always wanted to be reading instead. And I grew up hitting bookstores and libraries with my dad, never going anywhere without a paperback I could read if I had a minute to spare. But my interest in books was just that: reading. In fact, I hated writing so much when I was in college—because I couldn’t write nearly as well as I would have liked—that I tried to only take classes that didn’t require any writing.
After college, I went to grad school (the first time) at the Savannah College of Art & Design to study graphic design. I didn’t start writing there, but I did take a film and video elective, which I loved. I vowed then that if and when I got bored with design, I’d work in film.
Pretty soon after that, I dropped out of grad school because I realized it was kind of pointless to get an M.F.A. in graphic design and moved to Washington, D.C. where I began working as a designer. But I kept thinking about film. I’d always loved movies as much as I loved books, so right after I turned twenty-five I enrolled in a graduate film class at American University, which taught me, among other things, that I needed to learn to write a good screenplay. That was what led me to sign up for my first creative writing class—with poet Jane Shore at George Washington University, where I happened to be working as a designer. I wrote my first story—“Sliders,” which is the oldest story in How to Survive—during the first week of Jane’s class, and I decided immediately that I didn’t want to work in film, I didn’t want to work in design, but rather I wanted to be a writer.
Though I knew in my gut I wanted to be a writer, in reality, I spent the next three years debating that decision with myself. Finally, after taking every creative writing class I could at George Washington, I decided to give up my graphic design job (and a good salary I might add!) to go to grad school to study creative writing full-time. Though some of the people I knew thought I was completely nuts—I was a very good designer and had already won some awards—I had no doubts at that point and never looked back. I was twenty-eight when I made that fateful decision.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
As I said, I took every creative writing class offered at George Washington University—I studied with Jane Shore that first semester, then Faye Moskowitz, Maxine Clair and Daniel Vilmure after that. I could only afford to take so many these classes at this very expensive university because classes were free to me as a full-time employee. In fact, I often tell fledgling writers and artists that it’s not a bad idea to get a low-level job at a university after college so they can take more classes without paying a dime.
Trailer for HOW TO SURVIVE GRADUATE SCHOOL
Then, at the urging of my professors, I applied to and went to grad school at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. At that point, I knew I was risking a good deal to be a writer, so I devoted myself fully to it and started writing a novel as soon as I started the Master’s program there. My goal was to complete the novel before I finished the Master’s program, and I barely managed to do that. I had about 150 good pages finished after two years, and the summer after that, I raced through the last 100 or so pages just in time to defend my thesis. The second half of the book was rushed and awful, but at least I had proven I could finish something that big. I knew if I could do it once, I could do it again.
I hate to make it sound this simple, but I buy into that whole E.L. Doctorow idea that writing a novel is like driving a car at night—as long as you can see as far as the headlights in front of you, you can make it the whole way.
My original plan had been to complete the novel, sell it, and immediately become a huge success. When I could see that wasn’t going to happen—the first draft of the book was barely finished!—I decided to apply to Ph.D. programs in creative writing, which was how I ended up at the University of Cincinnati. Even before I was accepted into the program, I wavered about my intentions. Some days I said that if I got into a Ph.D. program, I would absolutely finish; other days I’d claim I was only going to more grad school so I would have time to write and would drop out as soon as I sold my first novel.
As most of us know, almost no one sells a novel while still in grad school, and I was no exception. But I did seriously consider dropping out at one point during the end of my third year in the doctoral program. In fact, I had actually decided to drop out because I thought that other things—specifically teaching and studying for my comprehensive exams—were taking too much time away from my writing. I made the tough decision to quit one morning while out on a walk, but when I got home, I had received an email message informing me I had been awarded a fellowship that would allow me to write full time without teaching during my fourth year—and get paid a larger stipend to do it. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and a fateful one at that because it is probably the only reason I finished the Ph.D. program.
I spent that wonderful year writing a few stories that appear in my collection—“The Other Man” and, more appropriately, at the end of that year, I wrote the first half of “How to Survive Your Last Year of Graduate School”—but mostly I wrote a lot of really awful stories that never saw the light of day.
Still, I’m a believer in the Malcolm Gladwell theory that the only way to succeed—as a writer, an artist, a musician, even a hockey player—is to put in the time it takes to work through the bad stuff so you can get to the good stuff. So even though I didn’t write the Great American Novel that year, I still benefited from having a whole year to write. It was a great gift, and I am still thankful for it.
Though I think it’s crucial for new writers to call themselves “writers” as soon as they know that’s what they want to be, I didn’t truly become a writer until the next year—the year I finished the Ph.D. program. One of the thing I’ve learned since then is that LOTS of people are good at writing while they’re still in college or grad school, but very few people have the discipline—or hutzpah—necessary to write after they finish school, which is something I kind of hint at in the title story of How to Survive. Luckily, I was blessed with a lot of hutzpah, and I spent the year after finishing the Ph.D. working tirelessly on the novel I’d started in the Master’s program. My husband, David Bell, got a visiting position teaching creative writing at Miami that year, so we stayed in our cheap grad school apartment in Cincinnati, and I wrote my butt off. That’s when I knew I had finally become a writer.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Well, most of my professors were invaluable in helping me. My professors at George Washington are the main reason I became a writer, and I can never thank them enough for that gift of encouragement. And the people I studied with at Miami—specifically Eric Goodman, Constance Pierce, Kay Sloan, and Tim Melley—were crucial in helping me see my work from a more critical perspective. Before I started grad school, I didn’t think enough about where my work fit in with the body of literature that already existed. Of course, my dissertation director at the University of Cincinnati, Brock Clarke, continued to push me to do that as well.
And all of my grad school professors taught me that it wasn’t going to be easy, that no one was going to hand me a book contract one day or tell me I was brilliant. That I would have to do it all on my own. And I would have to work harder than—or at least as hard as—every writer I knew to get there.
Because I came to writing late, this was especially true for me. Some of my grad school peers had been writing since high school (or earlier!), but I wrote my first creative piece when I was twenty-five, which is older than some people are when they publish their first book—though, obviously, that’s rare. So I learned quickly from rigorous instruction that I had a lot of catching up to do. It also didn’t help that I hadn’t majored in English as an undergrad, so I had to read books in the canon that other people had read years before. In fact, I’m still doing that now and probably always will be.
From HOW TO SURVIVE’S playlist for the story “Himmel Und Erde”: Heroes by David Bowie “One of my favorite songs of all time, Bowie’s heartbreaker is about two lovers meeting at the Berlin Wall not long before it came down. Since this story is about a young American woman who spends one day in East Berlin around the same time and is completely changed by the experience, it has a lot of themes in common with the song—like the idea of kissing ‘as though nothing could fall.’”
But, to be honest, just as important as my professors were my peers—both during and after grad school. When I read their work and realized how much better theirs was than mine, I pushed myself to get to their level. And I took their input as seriously as that of my professors, making a true study of the comments that everyone made on my stories for class.
Also, it wasn’t unusual for us to discuss our work outside of class—in coffee shops, bars, and each other’s apartments. We were constantly talking writing, and that meant I was always thinking about writing. As a result, writing became my life.
My peers were also a great support when I suffered as the result of the harsh words of some of the faculty in grad school or when I couldn’t handle any more rejection—I went nine years between publishing my first and second stories. And that support hasn’t wavered since then. My friends from that time are still my lifeline—if there is something I can’t figure out on my own, I send them an email message and hear back almost immediately. We are also really good about helping each other find out about publishing opportunities and promoting each other’s work, which is invaluable. Honestly I don’t know what I would do without my friends from grad school.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
I am most inspired by writers who never give up, who keep writing no matter how difficult it is for them to do it.
Like the story about the Marquis de Sade writing with his own blood in jail after they took away his quill. Or Martin Luther King writing “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” There was also a news story recently about a man named Harry Bernstein who published his first novel when he was 96, and that got me. I think I cried after reading that article. Or the story about Dick Wimmer, whose novel Irish Wine, was published in 1989 after being turned down 162 times over more than 25 years.
I’ll also never forget that Henry Roth—sixty years after publishing the revolutionary Call it Sleep—published Mercy of a Rude Stream when he was eighty-eight years old. When I feel discouraged, I think of people like this because I’m more inspired by these stories than the stories of canonical writers. I know it will sound clichéd, but I’ve always bought into the theory that the race is not always to the swift, but to those who keep on running. And that’s certainly been my story as well.
In the same way, I appreciate writers who have kept writing while supporting themselves through really lousy jobs (rather than through the relatively easy path of graduate school like I did). People like David Sedaris. When we think of Sedaris now, we think of him as one of the most successful writers of our time. My God, Sedaris is so big that he charges people fifty bucks to hear him read—what other writer can do that? Because of that, it’s easy to forget how long it took him to get there. Like many great artists, Sedaris had two failed attempts at college before making it through art school, and then was forced to do menial labor for the first part of his life. While living in New York and trying to make it as a writer, he worked as a cleaning person for many, many years. Just think about what that means—he cleaned people’s poopy toilets for a living. That was his job. Not many of us have suffered for our art like he has. But he did it. And he never gave up. He never stopped writing.
When I met him before his reading at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville last year, it was right after I’d turned forty. I was feeling discouraged because I hadn’t yet sold a book of my own, so I asked him how many years it had taken him to sell his first book. Immediately, he said “fifteen years.” Like he thought about that number all the time. I had been writing almost fifteen years myself at that time, so I felt both relived and hopeful but also frightened and nervous since I was approaching that number myself.
And then, miraculously, a few months later—right before I hit the fifteenth anniversary of writing my first story—I sold How to Survive. It felt like it was meant to be. And that’s why I put the date I started writing—1995—in the upper left corner of my website. I want to remind people that it doesn’t happen overnight. That writing is a lifelong project.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
It’s funny you ask because I put a list of fifty “tips” for surviving grad school on my website, and I think a good deal of what I included there applies to what I would say to an aspiring writer. Here are a few examples:
1. Be nice to everyone. . . you have NO IDEA who will make it. And it won’t be who you expect.
21. Make friends with your peers. They will be the only reason you survive, and you will cherish them the rest of your life. (Also, you have no idea which one of them you will need to ask for a favor later.)
22. But trust no one.
25. . . . don’t fall for the myth that drinking helps you do better work. It doesn’t.
30. . . . don’t sweat it either if you are not the winner of a [contest]. In the long run, these things mean nothing as long as you never give up.
31. Never give up. Edison was right—it’s all about the perspiration. Inspiration counts for next to nothing.
You’re timing is also uncanny because I just met with an aspiring writer today who graduated from college in May and is feeling a bit confused about what to do next. He is considering many avenues—poetry, songwriting, fiction, screenwriting—and afterwards I wrote to him and tried to capture everything I wanted to convey while we talked. If you don’t mind, I’ll just copy what I wrote to him here . . .
I hope that my message to you today was this: 1) It’s normal to feel lost after college. To be honest, I thought that in some ways it was the hardest time of my life because there is no longer an obvious path to follow. 2) You are lucky to have so many things that interest you passionately; most people have none. 3) You don’t have to pick just ONE thing to do right now, but . . . if you do try to succeed as a writer you have got to go at it full bore. Never give up and work at it all the time. Shoot for the 10,000 hours. And don’t even think about failing. Because at the end of life, no one says, “Wow, I wish I hadn’t gone after my dreams so hard.” No, they say the exact opposite. Ultimately I believe that if you go for it, you will succeed.
I guess if I could send one message to aspiring writers, it would be what I said at the end of this letter—give it your all and don’t look back. Because what other choice do you really have?