Need Motivation to Write? Go Back to School!

“That’s an interesting idea,” my agent friend said.

Interesting, yes, and admittedly unusual. I had just explained to him that I decided to do a master of fine arts in creative writing program, primarily to force myself to finish the memoir I’ve been trying to write for three years. Over those years, I finished a first chapter and pieces of several other chapters, but hadn’t been able to find much traction, despite the urgings of another agent friend in New York who said he’d be interested in representing it.

I would tilt at it occasionally, but mostly I was drawn to the things that seemed more urgent at the moment: freelance projects and my book on publishing, housework, the needs of my teen-age daughter. All of those things seemed to constantly trump my effort to get to the one writing project I told myself (and everyone else) was my top priority.

What to do?  

I’m a deadline-driven writer, the product of more than 20 years of daily newspaper writing. I never missed a deadline then, and I haven’t missed a freelance deadline since. But giving myself my own deadline didn’t seem to work. So, a year ago I thought: I’ve always wanted to go back to school and get my master’s. Why not make my memoir my thesis?

With my daughter heading off to college last fall, it opened up the space and time I believed I could devote to a low-residency program. So I applied to Antioch University in Los Angeles, which is only 90 miles from my hometown of Santa Barbara.

Low-residency means I spend 10 days in LA every June and December, then work online and by email with a faculty mentor during the intervening months. A cousin in LA offered to let me stay with her during the residencies, which made a prolonged stay there affordable. So, I applied to Antioch’s MFA in Creative Writing Program and began the program in December. Antioch’s MFA was named one of the top five low-residency programs in the country by The Atlantic Monthly, so I’m in very good hands.

It’s been many years since I was a college student, and I found myself both overwhelmed and exhilarated by the residency. In many ways it was like a weeklong writers conference, where more than 100 students who are passionate about writing gather for workshops, lectures, seminars and readings by both students and well-known authors. After four days I wasn’t sure what day it was, but I loved every minute.

Now, I’m preparing my second submission of writing and book annotations for my professor. During the five months following each residency, I will work on specific project goals. I promised (signed a contract!) to write 20 pages of new material for my memoir every month. I also have to read two books and write annotations on them every month. I had to research how to write an extended annotation (like a book review, really). And there are several major papers and projects required over the course of the next two years in addition to the memoir work.

My next packet of material is due to my professor next week. I’m feeling a little panicked about it, but determined to get the writing done. My first month’s material included most of what I had already written. Now I’ve got to come up with new writing. I have to. That’s the key. And I will. Because I haven’t missed a deadline yet.

I’m going to blog every week from now on about my progress, and also about what’s happening in the publishing and writing world. Stay tuned! And let me know if you’ve employed any unusual methods to force yourself to work on a long-term project.