Tag Archives: grad school

On Workshops and Professors

I saw a diagram recently on a friend’s Facebook page about the writing process. In particular, number five stuck out to me: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ninamohan/charts-that-perfectly-sum-up-being-a-creative-writing-maj?bffbbooks#.dvdOBPjQLO

Why, you ask? It’s my life.

After the summer and a particularly good group of writers in a long distance writing workshop over video chat, I was feeling pretty enthusiastic about my writing again. I had a good grasp on what my biggest problem was, the fact that I just want to dump all of my trauma into the essay and then run away and leave the reader holding the bag. The most illuminating feedback I received over the summer was that my writing can be “like throwing a bunch of punches at the reader and then never offering them an ice pack.” It made perfect sense to me. I write about these sucky things, and then never give the reader 31 year old me, the me in the now. I make the reader sad, and I generally leave them there. Armed with this insight, I made some edits to one of my more recent pieces of work and then jumped at the chance to go first this semester when my new writing workshop professor asked for volunteers. Yay new semester! Yay new professor! Yay new class with new feedback!

My zest for school dampened pretty quickly, with the gloom of last year quickly settling back in once I was in the classroom. I promptly stuck my foot in it with my new writing professor as I was passing out my essay. I tried to tell her how excited I was to take her class because of all the fantastic things I had heard about her, and it must have come out wrong, because she said that she felt like I was pressuring her for feedback and that she was now so uncomfortable she didn’t want to read my piece.

My professor. Didn’t. Want. To. Read. My. Piece.

I was completely crushed, and I sat in shock for the rest of class, playing with my phone inside my bag. This woman who had been incredibly built up by my peers was yet another let down in a school of let downs. That night, I went home wondering if she would even read my essay. I had an extra copy left over after it had made its way around the classroom, and I told myself that she hadn’t even taken one. It was a terrible, horrible, no good week of waiting that included seeing said professor in the hall and having her look right through me like I wasn’t even there. I wanted to scream after her “I WAS JUST TRYING TO TELL YOU HOW EXCITED I WAS TO FINALLY TAKE YOUR CLASS BECAUSE EVERYONE SAID YOU WERE AMAZING AND GAVE THE BEST FEEDBACK.” But I didn’t. I didn’t say anything at all.

Went to class the next week and discovered that she had indeed read my piece. The workshop went okay; it wasn’t the worst one ever. (There’s a blog about THAT workshop somewhere…) The professor was actually really nice. She asked my permission to read out loud scenes depicting rape. She discussed the piece with a respectable amount of decorum, especially compared to my workshop the previous semester where it was suggested the sex was consensual. And then, as I do after every workshop, I immediately pulled out her written feedback on the train home.

She called my use of the word “rape” too harsh. She said that it ran the risk of alienating the reader, and she suggested that I remove it, along with any graphic depictions of violence. I wanted to drop the essay onto the subway floor and grind it under my shoes. I wanted to rip off the outfit I had carefully picked out because workshop and scrub the makeup I had applied between class and dog walks right off my face. I wanted to quit. Too harsh. The word rape was just too harsh for the reader to handle, the word that I spent forever learning how to be comfortable saying was “too harsh.”

I cried. It was the first time in a long time that workshop feedback made me cry. I decided that I would never again work on that essay. I told myself that I would never have a thesis advisor, that all my dreams in terms of that were completely out the window.

The following week was a whirlwind of school-related disasters, culminating in the moment when the head of the program called me into her office to tell me that my workshop professor had called me high maintenance and said that my writing was disturbing.

#crushed.

I gave consideration to quitting graduate school for what had to be the hundredth time. And then I made a decision. I emailed my professor. I apologized for whatever grievous offense I had committed, even though I wasn’t sorry at all. She wrote me back thanking me. After class last week, she approached me.

“So what’s the deal? With…this?” She gestured from herself to me and back again.

“I …. I ….” I opted for the honest route. “Look. The head of the program said that you called me high maintenance, and I was really offended. Because I’m not. Like I said in my email, I just wanted to learn from you. And I’m sorry if I stuck my foot in it the first day. I really meant to say all of the things I said in my email—how awesome I had heard you were, how excited I was to be in your class. And it didn’t come out that way. I—“

“Wait,” she interrupted me. “She said I said WHAT?”

It turned out that the program director had lied to me. Or, well, SOMEONE had lied to me. My workshop professor and I talked in the stairwell for over half an hour and hashed out our garbage; I decided that she is what I will be in twenty years—nervous around people, but a strong writer with awesome feedback. We hugged. We made up. We decided that the program head was trying to say anything she could to make me her thesis student. We both apologized to each other for everything that had gone wrong.

It occurred to me as I walked home, once again, that workshop didn’t mean nearly as much as I thought it did. That feedback could be taken wrong. That I was only as good a writer as I let myself be.

I am only as good of a writer as I let myself be.

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Endings

Another semester has ended, and with it, a part of my life.  But a new segment of my life is beginning.  A new part of the journey.  Me moving forward, hopefully into grad school.

I came up with an end segment for my memoir this week.  Here’s a portion of it:

This memoir has been the story of a recovery.  Of a hike.  But more than that, of a life lived and people met along the way.  

If nothing else, for me as I am now, what happened to me doesn’t matter in the same way that it used to.  Yes, it’s still there.  And yes, it still hurts.  But it hurts in a different way, because I am different.    I don’t want to spend my life behind a pane of glass.  I want to experience all of the things that the world has to offer.  I want to be confident that I can handle life’s occurrences, even though it’s hard.  

I want to know the things that other people already recognize.

Life on the other side is hard and bright and loud.  But it’s also fun and enriching and educating and a million other things.  I want to cross the threshold and experience life beyond the wall that I’ve constructed around myself.

This has been the story of my journey.  All of the pieces of this journey and the people within it add up to the place where I am now.  Because I have survived these things, I know that I can survive anything.  N told me recently that when, not if, I get in to graduate school, I will become my best self, even better than I am now, because I will be around writers and I will be writing.  What makes me strong is my words, and they’ll be with me wherever I go.  

Like I said in the beginning, this story isn’t pretty.  It isn’t magical flowers and rainbows; it doesn’t feature a unicorn.  But it does belong to me.  I have struggled for a long time regarding how to end this.  But now I know that there is no ending.  To end would be to stop growing, and I don’t ever want to stop.  I always want to grow.  I want to continue to be better than my past, to be better than the holes.  I want to hold on to what I have and take it and use it and be better.  

I want, more than anything, to keep this journey moving to the other side.

These people will be with me forever, because they are part of my story.

These words will be with me forever.

This life will be mine.  Forever.

I’ve been worried lately about endings.  The end of my undergraduate career.  The end of my life in Wisconsin.  The end of my time with the wonderful people I have met and been blessed with the opportunity to learn from.  I have had amazing mentors within the college I go to who have given me the opportunity to learn more about life and myself and everything than I ever thought possible.  I have made real friends that will be around for a long time.  Many times, I think about how scared I am to leave this place, to end this time of my life.  But the end of this semester and my subsequent reflections upon life have shown me that I’m thinking about this all wrong.  Instead of thinking about endings, I should be thinking about beginnings—like that saying about one door closing and another opening.  Every ending in my life has actually been a beginning.  The end of my son was the beginning of the dissolution of my marriage.  The end of my marriage was the beginning of my college career.  The end of my college career will be the beginning of my new life and, hopefully, a graduate school career.  Each time something in my life has ended, as sad as it has been, it has pushed me into a new place.  I am learning to handle my life, bit by bit.  I am making allowances, taking care of myself and doing the things that I need to do to be okay.  I’m learning that it’s okay to not always be okay, that it’s okay to be broken sometimes.  But, in turn, I’m also learning that just because I break occasionally does not mean that I am forever damaged.  I am not damaged.  I have been hurt, but it does not define me.  I am healing, slowly but surely.  And this ending is a new beginning.

Endings are sad, but they aren’t as sad when we reverse them.  When we make them beginnings.  The word beginning implies an opportunity to grow.  My words make me strong, and they will always be with me.  I will take myself and lay everything out; I will learn and grow from my experiences and the knowledge and support of the people around me.  And because I am giving myself opportunities to grow and become my own person, I will be my best self.

I have been worried about leaving, about the end.  But there is no end.  There is only growth.  And I will never, ever, stop growing.

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