Q: What do you do when the words just aren't coming? Is it okay to just take a break?
In a word, yes. Taking a break is often the best tactic, whether you have no idea what to write next or so many ideas you become paralyzed. My strategy—garnered only from my own battles with the blank page—is both simple and maddening: "Wait." But this is no lazy day in the sun break. You need to make this wait productive, while still taking the pressure off. Below are a few ways I've made the waiting work.
If you can stand it, write through the wait. Take a break from whatever project is stumping you, and focus on being playful with words. Once, I wrote lists of word pairs as nonsensical as I pleased: "making mosquitoes," "harper coins," and "glass creatures." Playing with words and reaching for connections kept my hand moving and—as I soon discovered—helped my brain rev up to do more serious work. You'll eventually gravitate toward something more focused, and you may be pleasantly surprised by what you create.
Also, a lot can be said for getting comfortable, closing your eyes, and imagining your way into one of your writing projects. Imagination is fueled by image and experience. You wouldn't, for example, imagine the abstract concept of "tenderness." Instead, you might imagine a man's hand resting on the hip of a woman he's just met. He becomes aware of the intimacy of it and, realizing he doesn't know her well enough for that kind of contact, pulls away. An entire moment has come to life from simply slowing down and imagining. Look at your characters in your mind's eye. Watch them move. What do they do next? This might be exactly what you need to get back to work. When you don't have specific poems, characters, or storylines in mind, this can be particularly fun. Answering very general questions—What are people capable of doing? What is an unexpected way to experience love?—can be an endless source of inspiration.
Reading other writers' short stories, poems, or chapters can also be inspiring. Experiencing the way another writer puts words together and evokes an emotional response can reinvigorate your own process. The same is true of authors' essays about writing. Different perspectives can open up new ways of engaging in the process.
Another waiting activity is to get up and move. Take a walk. Go for a bike ride or a swim or a run. Mow the lawn. A simple activity that doesn't take much thought can get your mind wandering in productive directions. Don't think of your "to do" list while engaging in this movement. Center your thoughts away from such responsibilities in order free yourself up to more creative—and productive—thought.
The work of writing happens with the page and away from it. Give yourself the room to roam.
Q: Is it possible to get published these days without an MFA?
Of course! Advanced degrees aren't a prerequisite to publication. Daniel Handler, more widely known as Lemony Snicket, and Amy Tan, who wrote The Joy Luck Club, are two contemporary authors who have published without an MFA degree. There are many, many more.
Excellent writing snares a publication deal, not education credentials. MFA programs certainly do have benefits. They provide a community of people who value writing, plenty of guidance, and opportunity to discuss literature and craft with established writers. MFA programs also provide a writer with time—a precious commodity. Still, an MFA isn't a sure ticket to publication. And not all writers need an MFA program to hone their craft. Some focus on self-study, reading or workshops with writers' groups to improve. Publication comes down to strong and engaging writing, no matter how you go about getting your work to that level.
One thing all writers must do—whether working toward an MFA or not—is practice, practice, practice. Then, they practice some more.