Between Bliss and Burnout

Our $17 room in Oaxaca had a soaring ceiling, easily thirty feet high, though lacking in that imposing baritone importance of high ceilings. Instead, it had an old, shabby southern feel, of concrete and peeling paint and idleness, a ceiling to contemplate in late afternoon with a belly full of spice and the sidewalks outside quiet with heat.

In the ceiling was a small square skylight. It let in so much light that our first morning in Oaxaca my husband and I woke up debating who had left the light on the night before. Neither of us. After three years in Pittsburgh, we had gotten that unaccustomed to the Oaxacan sun.

On a chair was a tiny, mountainous leper’s colony of reading and writing materials. Tin House, The Missouri Review, The Boy Kings of Texas, Swamplandia. I’d brought only one small wad of clothing, but, in full MFA writer-work mode, got-to-keep-learning-all-the-time, I crammed in a small library of literary materials until the suitcase’s zipper was bursting. And then, once I was in Oaxaca, they all seemed horribly contaminated. Just the sight of them stirred my stomach. I tossed a filthy and unneeded sweatshirt over them on Day 2, and didn’t lift it until I left. Nothing against Tin House, or Karen Russell, both of whom I love, but I was so burnt out that anything related to words churned my stomach: like a food you crave and crave and eat and eat until one day the thought of it suddenly repulses you. Never another Peep again, please. Except this was the sustenance of my career.

I’ve never experienced a hot/cold shift quite so dramatic as this one. From total embrace to total rejection, in the space of two flights and the saddest little plastic-wrapped Aeromexico pasta salad ever. I don’t think I realized how small and singular my literary world had become until I smelled the sewage outside the airport in Oaxaca and rolled the shuttle window down all the way to get a deeper whiff. “Close that!” Jorge whispered, as the mildly disconcerted tourist-passengers around us watched the inky mechanic’s shops drift by in the night and took in the shit-polluted Rio Atoyac. “I can’t,” I whispered back. It was warm and reeking and real. I smelled and smelled and smelled. Burning trash and exhaust and the sewage-burdened river and the dry sweet grasses. And in the silent black streets en route to 1 am tacos I thought nothing. Under the domed sky in the afternoon, nothing. In the market, nothing, just watching, just being. I remembered what it was to just be in the world again, no plans or expectations. In other words, I went on vacation.

But I’m not a vacation person. Such is the irony of being a “travel writer”: neither travel nor writing are escapist, entirely pleasurable experiences. Neither is confined exclusively to the world of work or play. They exist in a realm between the two, and this is the realm I have always inhabited, ever since I was a 6th-grader who ranked career above every other consideration in life and marked as my top career considerations “being outside” and “creativity.” I have always been intensely career-driven and always intensely focused on doing what I want to do: with the exception of a brief stint teaching at a university in Japan and another working at a magazine in New York, both of which as temporary departures from the norm felt more exotic than tedious, I’ve never had what my grandma would officially designate a job, a job-y job, 9-5 with a boss, pantyhose, a lunch break. I have always worked, all through college and after, always had to support myself, but I have done it on my own terms, which often meant living overseas with no furniture and no savings but the ability to spend long afternoons eating mangos under banyan trees. For a while, traveling was my career: my goal to humble and humiliate and challenge and astound myself as completely as possible, to learn languages, to push the limits of credulity, to go rocketing up learning curve after learning curve, to get experience. Of the world, of myself.

And then, that wasn’t enough. The ideologies of travel for travel’s sake grew threadbare, the experience repetitive. And I came back to writing, what I’d always done through all the disparate phases of college and expat life in Mexico and Asia and Europe. Of course, like so many itinerant twenty-somethings with vaguely intellectual leanings, who find themselves yearning for more structure and mental stimulation but still have no idea where they might “end up,” I applied to grad school. And before I really knew it I was in Pittsburgh in school again with writing at the center of my life in a new, exhilarating, careerist way, pointing straight at my thirties and the future.

So part of this is the story of fear of settling down, fear of inertia, fear of the realization that I can no longer chase the thrill of vertigo, moving to Iceland on a whim, without an accompanying awareness that what is new will inevitably get old and that the stakes are much higher now. Novelty is not enough. I have made writing into this core of self and career and I can’t shake it: the deeper fear, beyond inertia, beyond the awareness that a thirst for undiluted experience is no longer enough, is that I will spoil it for myself. That reading and writing will be contaminated by careerism, ambition, and the play that must animate art at some level will be quashed by narrow and mechanical focus.

Hi, I’m Sarah, and I’m finishing my MFA in three weeks.

Maybe it’s just that: timing, and a lack of jobs, and a lack of clear opportunities, and The New Yorker rejecting itself and the impossibility of getting an email answered and the six-month wait time for submissions and the looming uncertain future. You know, that. But I think there is a deeper uncertainty, at the root of what it means to be –God forbid, and how I loathe this term, its horrible bougie self-importance, but I will employ it here for want of an adequate substitute–an artist who makes art the center of her life. There is perhaps a Faustian bargain at work in this. You will get to do what you most love doing, what is most challenging, stimulating, frustrating and rewarding to you, but you run the risk of bleeding all the fun out of it.

What grad school has done is launch me into this murky, anxious gray zone marked by difficult, often mechanical, sometimes tedious and dogmatic work on one end and enlivened, joyful, time-annihilating play on the other. Most of school has existed far closer to the former area of this zone, and for the most part I believe that this is as it should be. I was not an English major, had never taken a workshop before the MFA or talked about writing in that way that We Talk About Writing (in the veiled, repressed language of sex: “What move is she making?”). I read a great deal but did not know how to read as a writer. Grad school was a full-on immersion for me, teaching and critiquing writing and reading and critiquing and teaching reading. Everything in a loop, everything feeding everything else. Often, I worked from the moment I woke up until the moment I went to bed. And I learned leaps and bounds: I can see that now. But I have also pushed so hard, disappeared so thoroughly into the world of writing as life and career that I have forgotten the spontaneity, joy, and simple love for language and representation at the heart of it. I have lost sight of the flag of play, a distant receding speck, tattered and dubious.

The recognition of this is the recognition that elements of what once were thrilling have become rote: I can’t stop myself from analyzing the language of the book I’m reading, asking questions about syntax, point of view, the tinny workshop elf in my head muttering about choices. I start writing a new piece and automatically all the gears of structure and style and intention and character and direction begin to grind, each a little chink in the unchecked fluidity and joy I used to feel. But then, I used to write weak, maudlin little essays about the man who carved airplanes out of wood at the market. These advances, in which the work becomes more vexed and difficult and there is an increasing inability to unequivocally, simply enjoy it, have made me a better writer. Have arguably made me a writer.

I find the accusations that MFA students don’t read or don’t work baffling: I’ve done both excessively for the past few years. I could never imagine paying for an MFA degree and would discourage any prospective student from ever taking on debt for it, but if you’re not using the MFA as a stepping stone to non-existent academic jobs but rather as an incubatory period for writing it can be immensely helpful. The critique of MFAs that I do find solid, however, is that they lead to formulaic academic writing. It is inevitable for the sets of concerns that arise over and over in workshop not to act like that mold I used to have for my Play-Doh: the pink paste comes out like spaghetti, or like a star-shaped turd, or a siren’s twisted hair. It fits one form or another, shaped accordingly. I can recognize in certain essays and stories in lit mags that academic sculpting, everything very properly thought out and trimmed, tight. No reckless loose ends, uncertainties, departures. This is what I fear my writing becoming: a product tamed by the machine of academic perfection.

And yet at the same time, academia can produce beautiful work. Plenty of writers learn all that sculpting and then studiously teach themselves to forget it, to re-remember their own creativity and play, the knowledge of academia subconscious instead of pre-determinate.

But it is about more than academia and its forces of formulaic gravity: it is about the complication of doing what you love, of “following your bliss.” Because the further you follow it the further it will lead you into that gray zone, transformative and satisfying and an unshakeable part of your identity in much deeper ways than it was as a sideline but no longer purely bliss. Sometimes, no longer bliss at all. There is a tendency to fetishize difficulty in writing, and writers above all encourage this, but for as difficult as writing is–particularly writing a book–I don’t doubt that most serious writers also find in it a profound, private pleasure. Not the pleasure of beers and shrimp on Sunday. Not the pleasure of sex, the pleasure of escape, the pleasure of self-congratulation. Something else: an itch scratched until it bleeds. The pleasure of a moment recalled that only you have witnessed, only you understand, that secret that you share with the universe and that you search to relive and define and make tangible. It won’t happen every day, every week, maybe even every month, but without it, the “art,” the work, is only a shell.

In Oaxaca, in that room with its big shabby ceiling, its confusing wealth of light, the birdsong drifting in from the interior garden and the feet of working women passing on the sidewalk in the window, I remembered the pleasure and realized I was on the cusp of losing it. Of seeing everything as a text, that loathsome antiseptic word that makes me picture a pedantic PhD student holding up a sheet of paper with tweezers and flinching. In grad school everything seems a stepping stone to…what? More understanding, better work, more literary work, more recognition, success, mastery…more languages, more experiences, more continents, more wild-boar-in-the-night stories. There has to be something else. Something deeper. That’s what they don’t teach you in grad school, what you can’t teach yourself because it is instinctual, essential. It is being-in-the-world. Play. Aliveness. The recognition of the light as something you will use in an essay someday, yes, and maybe it will be about Oaxaca and the U.S. and maybe about play and work and writing and grad school but ultimately it has to be about the light itself too, the way it felt when you woke up on the first day there and remembered what it felt like to live without words.



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