Writing Lessons: Emily Maloney

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Emily Maloney, a student in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. You can follow her on Twitter @emilyfmaloney—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

emily_bridge_photoI registered for my final required workshop last fall. Up until that point, I had mixed feelings about my MFA program. I felt disconnected. I loved teaching but it took so much energy, and I never seemed to have time to write. Enter final required workshop.

There were six of us (seven if you count the professor), including one student from another discipline altogether. I hadn’t been the best about writing regularly. I prided myself as someone who wrote when I had deadlines. Have to turn in an essay for workshop? Fine, I’ll write something and send it in. Need to submit something for a contest? Maybe I’ll revise that thing I wrote last year. I had something of a routine before graduate school, mostly structured by my job and my commute, but the acres of free time I had accumulated since leaving made me procrastinate.

The official class met once a week, like many workshops do. But what our professor suggested we do before we did anything else, seven days a week, was show up to a coffeehouse close to where most of us lived. Starting at 6:30 a.m., you could show up and write. If you missed a day, that was fine. It was like a yoga class, or a dojo (our professor used to teach Judo, so this analogy made sense).

At dojo, nobody took attendance, eye contact was optional, and you weren’t shamed if you didn’t show up (or if you did). Some lived farther away and dojoed from home. Nobody talked, at least not for the first few hours. You just bought a cup of coffee (or peppermint tea, in my case), found a table, sat down, and wrote. When you had to leave, you left.  Then you came back the next day. Lather, rinse, repeat.

During that semester, I missed some days, attended others. Word got out, and students from other classes would visit our dojo for a day or a week at a time. Pretty soon, most mornings, you could look across the room and see laptops glowing a table or two away in the predawn darkness. It rains a lot in Pittsburgh in the fall, and I’m told we have more cloudy days here than in Seattle, so sometimes it’s dreary, even dismal. But operating with the expectation that other people would show up and work at the same time as you felt comforting, less lonely.

I finished a draft of my thesis last fall; I’m now neck-deep in revision, re-ordering, rewriting. When I describe the experience now, it seems so simple: show up and work. Over the past year, things have changed for me: it’s really not about the workshop feedback or even the opportunity to teach, but the writing habits I’ll hope to continue after I’m done here, and the fact that I know that others are making and practicing those habits too.

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