Tag Archives: graduate school

If I Could Go Again…

I didn’t come to New York thinking I would write the next great manuscript.

That’s a lie, actually. I think I did come here with that in the background, whether or not I acknowledged the existence of the thought. I’ve been in a slump since I finished my thesis draft, which is a full length manuscript; if any of you are counting, that was over a year ago now. It’s a full length memoir, and it’s ready to do things that manuscripts do when they become real things. It even has real author blurbs and everything. But I’m not pushing for it. It’s sitting. I’m sitting. I’m dragging my feet on my edits. I’m not responding to emails. I’ll write about dogs, I tell myself. I’ll write about dogs and people will want to read it, and I’m with them every day, and I’m learning every day, and I SHOULD write about dogs. 

And the not uttered thought:

Damn it, but writing’s not fun anymore now that it’s work. 

I graduated a year ago last weekend. And it seems to me that my actual grad school got me nothing. I learned more before grad school. Yeah, I learned some stuff there. But I feel like I spent a lot of time teaching my peers too, like I came in to the program with the knowledge we were already getting. I’m not being conceited with that statement; I was simply taught very well by my undergrad professors. I left my graduate program with no real friends from the school, just a smattering of great acquaintances, due to a combination of things–lack of social ambition, lack of people skills, lack of…connectability? I made the wrong choice in program, and I know that now. I think I knew that when I got here, the first semester when I turned in a paper that accidentally went over people’s heads. I never fit in my program. I wasn’t driven to attend school functions, at least not until the very end when they suddenly wanted me to read, everywhere. I came early, but I came early to write, by myself usually. I left right after class. It was nothing like undergrad, and I was disappointed in myself, in the program, for what I could have had elsewhere. 

I may have left the program with nothing, with no writing community (anyone out there want to adopt me to theirs? No really. I’m serious–message me.), but I did leave with New York. I am a New Yorker.

New York? Well, that got me everything.

See, I’m a different person in New York. I’m not scared to be out in the world. I’m not nervous navigating the subway, going to new places, exploring, being out and about (within reason, of course.) I like experiencing new things (again, within reason). I get coffee with people sometimes; I go to movies; I go out to eat. I sit at home with my cat and read books and play video games (and write when I wanna), and I don’t feel ashamed about the alone time. I do things for me and I don’t apologize, not anymore. I claim my story and I own my work and there’s no more “sorry this is hard for you to hear/read (even though it happened to me and not to you and I deserve to write about it).”

I think the biggest difference between New Yorker me and Wisconsin me is confidence. Confidence in myself, in my thoughts, in my body. My best friend, E, came to visit recently, on break from her own graduate program in Texas. We went to a jazz show on her second to last night here (a bar atmosphere I actually enjoyed, mind you), and I was digging in my closet prior to the show as I tried to decide what to wear. In the very back, on the last hook, was a little black dress. I bought it in 2009, pre-pregnancy, and I wore it a few times back then. Always with a tank top underneath to cover my chest, because the neckline was super low and my ex decidedly did not approve. Post-pregnancy, I didn’t wear it again. It never fit, and it always felt weird with a tank top underneath anyway. But on a hunch, on jazz night, I pulled that dress out and slipped it on–no tank top. Not only did it fit, it looked good. It showed a LOT. But it looked good. I wore it out in public with only a mild amount of concern that I might have a Janet Jackson-esqe moment (I did not). I needed no one’s approval but my own, though I most definitely did tell people how excited I was to no longer carry baby weight around and to wear something I haven’t worn in eight years (screw you, Ex). 

E and I haven’t lived in the same vicinity for almost four years now, but it was like we had never been apart–it definitely helps that we FaceTime pretty much every Sunday. I think that I used to largely be a follower just because I didn’t know what else to be. I make no claims to NOT be a follower now, but what I noticed when E was here was that I followed a lot in searching for new experiences, for things I might not see or want to see because my own views and experiences limit me. I am the same while also being different. I am the same, but my motivations have turned. Like with the dress. I wore it not to cover myself up and not for anyone else, but to say I am comfortable with my body and it is mine. Fun times were had while E was here, (her words when I asked if I could mention her visit, but I agree!), and they reaffirmed my love for this city that I only had the courage to come to because of my grad school program. 

It’s time for that yearly question: if I could do it again, would I still do grad school? Honestly, for the writing and MFA aspect? No, absolutely not. I did not need it. I have a lot of debt because of it that I think is largely the reason I’ve been too scared to try and do my own thing; I owe money to the world and I doubt my ability to raise that on my own when I have no connections in the writing community that I didn’t have pre-grad school. My undergrad professors taught me so well; I was really spoiled by that education (and shame on Scott Walker for trying to destroy the institution), and I received guidance and education and connections there that helped me to publish so much more than I did in grad school. I was a writer before I was a grad student, and I did not need a masters degree to tell me that. I HATED grad school. But I love this damn city. And if I hadn’t come here, I wouldn’t be comfortable with myself. 

So again I ask, if I could do it again, would I still do grad school? Would I still get my MFA? Yes. Yes I would. My MFA got me New York, got me me. And maybe the key to writing again is accepting that my writing is different now, is being open to telling stories, all the stories, not just the major ones. 

“Why this story? Why this piece, when it is all the pieces, all the stories? Everything is important.”

I am different now. Confident. A dog walker, and trainer. An animal lover, and rescuer. Still a follower, but an open follower. A friend. More, someday. And maybe I don’t define myself as a writer, but she’s still there too. She’s just different–but different is fun too.

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“Me” vs. Me

Three weeks ago, I was given the assignment to write two essays by Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving rapidly approaches—what are we, two weeks out now?—and if you think I’ve written essays, or even started essays, I’m going to laugh in your face. No, really. Open the window. You’ll hear me.

I’ve been in a weird head space. Call it the blahs, call it writers block, call it massive life regret; call it what you will. But I’m not writing. Someone important to me told me I was throwing a tantrum, that I needed to get out and try to publish the way I did when I was in undergrad, the way I stopped doing when I hit grad school. Did my uber expensive masters degree break me of doing the thing I love?

I started evaluating how I got here, to this place, to this weird balance of writer and dog trainer and New Yorker. I opened up my undergrad paper files, to the very first paper I ever wrote. It was an introduction for an English Lit class. I didn’t know how to write papers back then, not really, but I definitely knew how to write about myself. I knew what I wanted then:

“In all honesty, what I want is to become a writer. I like words. I am one of the few who can use a semi-colon properly; I have been writing practically since I knew how to form words. I participate in NaNoWriMo every year, the exercise of writing a 50,000 plus word novel in 30 days, just for fun. the last three years that I’ve done this, I’ve done it while working a 50 hour work week. Between writing an average of 2700 words a day and carrying my regular work load, there wasn’t a lot of time left for sleeping! I am very particular about every word that comes out of me, whether it be an ordinary conversation paper or the next great novel. there’s a small part of me that is uncertain whether the words i write are any good. However, there is a larger part of me that is beginning to realize that I actually do have a talent for this.”

It’s ironic that now, what, six years later, I have less confidence in my work than I did before I embarked on this journey. I see my friends and acquaintances with equally expensive degrees not using them more than they are, and I find myself wondering once again what the damn point was. To be clear, because I don’t want to sound like I’m taking a giant piss on my life, I am very happy where I am. I have some great relationships here, with people and dogs. I have a job I adore. I just … don’t write things. I have a super expensive degree that I paid *insert unspecified ridiculously embarrassing amount of debt here* for and it feels silly. I didn’t even do NaNoWriMo this year, and when I realized that, I promised myself I’d write in my journal every day, at least for November. Then I promptly left my apartment for a week and forgot my journal on my headboard shelf. So much for that idea.

In my prior writer years, when I was really on the ball and doing the writerly things I was supposed to do, I used to hassle my friend N about not making time in her life to write. I’ve since apologized, at least five times. I haven’t submitted an essay for publication in at least a year. I haven’t made the required edits that will make my thesis a book. I reached this great point in my writing where I had learned how to really articulate myself and my story and do it well, and I just STOPPED.

Why.

I wonder if, perhaps, I am afraid of what it means to go further. If I have broken every barrier I was comfortable breaking (and some I wasn’t) and that now I can go no further because I can never associate my story with myself in a greater public sense, with the people who were in it. If, for, as much as I tote around that I can speak, I can do these things, I can be this person who these things happened to and be more than her at the same time, that I really can’t—because to be more here means to be more back there. No more pen name; no more bottom shelf paperback. No more cloak of invisibility.

No more “me.” Just … me.

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Welcome to After the MFA

Honestly? I never thought about life after the MFA. It was a means to an end, and getting in was a goal to get me through a time in my life that I didn’t know how to muddle through on my own.

I remember the first conversation I had about graduate school:

  • Me: Tell me what to do to get into grad school.
  • T: Well, start by looking up programs. Figure out what you need, what you want, who will pay you. Don’t go if they don’t pay you.

I started looking in an almost passive manner. And then, after everything went to hell, I became more manic about it.

  • Me: (paraphrased) I need a thing. I have a hole and I need to fill it.
  • T: You can take time off if you want; the choice is yours. I’m behind you whatever you decide.
  • Me: (paraphrased) I need a thing.
  • T: Research graduate schools, and report back what you find.

So I did. Her advice worked. I was rejected by some schools; I was accepted by others. I read the books of all of the advisors of my possible programs, and I settled on The New School. I had all of these grand plans of what it would be like to be a writer after the MFA.

  1. write book
  2. publish book
  3. have glamorous writer job

After the MFA is none of these things.

  1. I’m a dog walker/trainer. As previously established, I love this and I’m great at it, but it’s not what I thought I’d do. I’m okay with it, and I’ll keep doing it, because it works great with writing. But, again. Not what I thought I’d do.
  2. I wrote a book. It’s being read by people. But, as my past endeavors have taught me, it’s not good enough. And it’s not ready. It will be soon though. Actually, I lied; it’s pretty great.
  3. Publish? Under my real name? Say WHAT? Publishing has the following issues:
    1. The book is all true.
    2. I still haven’t settled on the pen name issue.
    3. He’s out there, today.

It’s here, this thing in my life I never accounted for, this thing I knew would happen someday but I didn’t let myself think about. Grad school was a means to an end, but now it’s done.

Getting my MFA bought me time. Question is, was it enough to break away? Did I buy myself enough time; have I become the person that I want to be apart from him? I am 32 years old. Do I know who I am now, at least enough to be that person? My person?

Are my words enough? My book? Am I invisible? I want to be. Do I want to be?

Question: Am I enough?

Answer: Who we are is what comes out when things go bad. You can’t tell anything about a person when things are great. You only really know someone when everything’s gone to hell.

Answer: I have to be.

Welcome to after the MFA.

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The Ghost Ship

“What do I do after … this?” I gesture around the room, and while I’m well aware that this could be interpreted as any number of things, I’m aware that H understands what I mean–graduate. Leave academia. I am comfortable here. I may not have always been the biggest fan of graduate school, but I can still negotiate a classroom setting like the best of them. Can I negotiate a world setting? I’m not sure. Other people think so, but I find myself continually pondering my capabilities. I want to write. I don’t want to walk dogs forever; it’s not how I’m interested in earning a living.

“Well, you’ll publish. And then you’ll teach. You have all this teaching experience, and as a published MFA, you’re qualified to use it.” Her expression indicated this should have been obvious to me. It wasn’t.

I have two lives for the first time. I am not just a girl who hides in the corner and scribbles in a notebook; I am also a dog walker with many regular dog friends who has to deal with doggy parents day in and day out. My boss has a life path for me that involves me getting certified as a dog trainer and helping the training side of the business. I love my each and every one of my dogs for different special reasons. I love what I do. But it isn’t what I thought I’d do. It’s a different ship than the boat I sailed to New York on.

I am interested in dog training, but I’m not. I can’t see how it would work with the life that I want, but I don’t how to say no to my boss. Have I ever said no? To anyone? And the most important question: When would I write?

Writing used to come easily to me; I did it all the time and everywhere. But now that it’s a thing I am supposed to do, I don’t really do it. I sit on my bed when I’m supposed to be working; I stare out the window. I watch people walking down the sidewalk without coats—it’s 70 degrees out today in New York City. It’s bright and sunny and warm and I am not a writer, because I am too busy being a dog walker. I have to make time. This is new to me recently, this idea that writing is something that has to be worked in, new because I never worked it in before. It just happened. 

“How do I get here?” I ask H. I stop just short of saying How do I be you? What I want, what I have always wanted, is to be where she is. A professor, working one on one with students and teaching classes, but a writer first and foremost. It is obvious as we sit across from each other, her bare feet up on her desk and mine tucked beneath me as the sun sets out the window behind us, that she has a different plan for me. We talk about my future, about the position that is mine for the taking next year, should I choose to teach. It is a good position, with benefits, and it has always been my dream. But I don’t say yes right away. H can see farther ahead than I—she can see all the books that I will write, the students I will teach, the relationships I will form, where all I can see are dogs. All I can see is my writing life sailing away because I am too scared to get on the boat I worked so hard to start moving. By not writing, by stopping myself, I am standing on the pier and watching it move away.

In Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes, “I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”

I want my writer life to be the life I choose. I don’t want writing to be my ghost ship. I am ready to catch that boat that is already sailing away.

So, today, I make myself a schedule for the first time ever. I write. I sail. And next year? I teach.

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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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Secret Life

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written in his works.” -Virginia Woolf

When I was in high school, I used to lock myself inside the orchestra practice rooms during our study hall practice time and write. Not about anything particularly life shattering, I just wrote. Even back then, I would pick my journals for their cool factor or their pretty factor. I remember one in particular that was purple and had a gothic purple fairy on the cover, tied shut with a lavender ribbon. When I found the next cool notebook, I would set aside whatever one I was working on and jump to the next. As a result, I am now much older and have a plethora of totes with incomplete notebooks stuffed inside. I cannot bear to throw any of them away.

Green, velvet, hardcover, with a magnetic flap clasp—my favorite of all my old journals. Funny though, how when I flip through it, there are so few pages filled. It’s one of the few that I actively remember its origin. I was sitting on my bed in the adolescent eating disorder unit, or RED, when there was a knock on the door frame. One of my high school teachers. My favorite teacher. She perched on the edge of my bed, and we chatted for a while about nothing much in particular. The journal and a horse pin with two horses, one gold and one silver, racing each other, were her parting gifts to me. “Write your pain,” she told me. I was sixteen years old. I wonder if the reason that particular journal is so empty is because I didn’t know how to write then. I didn’t know how to be the sixteen year old narrator, the current me. Supposedly I know how now.

My current journal is a hardcover, black Moleskin notebook. It’s more full than most of my journals. I bought it when, halfway through this past semester of graduate school, I was ready to tear out my hair from my hatred of writing. “I’ll go back to basics,” I thought. “I’ll write things by hand.” My beginning thesis work then was a struggle bus. (Still is.) People who were reading my work kept telling me that I needed to learn to be more reflective in my writing. I had to “embrace the current me, the 31 year old narrator.” I didn’t want to, but I tried in this journal. I wrote about religion, about sex, about all things with my ex; I wrote about what I thought now about all of these things, and I wrote about why they had come to be the way they had come to be. My joy in handwriting my life story lasted about three weeks. Now I carry that notebook around, because I refuse to buy another one until I can fill this one. But I don’t want to write my thesis anymore. I don’t want to write anything.

I don’t want to be the 31 year old narrator.

I often hear that, as a writer, I am “doing it right.” I don’t know what that means. I try not to laugh at people when they say it. I mean, what is “doing it right” anyway? If “doing it right” is writing, then I’m doing it all wrong. I write what I have to. New work appears occasionally. I tinker with editing old things. But I do not write like I used to. Certainly not like I used to as a child.

One of my notebooks is a green softcover that says “My Diary” on the front. I covered it in Lisa Frank animal stickers. I got that notebook when I was eight years old. I used to take it to the park and pretend I was Harriet the Spy, writing down random things about the people and events that I saw around me. The playground was a particularly great source of material; had I been any older, children’s parents may have thought I was a stalker. I thought that I would always write all the things. I liked that writing came easy. But I’ve learned as I grew older that isn’t what being a writer is at all.

Somewhere along the way I stopped writing everything and anything. When I go out now, I usually wear headphones so people on transit won’t talk to me. I don’t look at strangers unless I absolutely can’t afford it, because I don’t want to engage them. I’m no Harriet the Spy. I’m just me. 

If being a real writer means not writing? I’m certainly “doing it right.”

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On Seeing

I had to write an author’s note this week for my best piece ever as I prepare for its publication. No, really, it is the best thing I will ever write. I needed an author’s note that would do it justice, but I’ve never written an author’s note before. I convinced myself I didn’t know how. I asked a friend for help, but she pointed out to me that she can’t always answer my questions. I’ve been thinking about this since our text conversation, and I still can’t reconcile myself with the person that she sees me to be. A successful writer? What?? Funny, because one of my responses to her was to “see the person I see in her.” That’s me though; I can’t see the me that other people see. So I get it when I see it in someone else. No matter how many times I publish, no matter how much I write, I’m not going to see myself as a writer. I’m always going to doubt myself, always going to see the times I’m not writing and not successful before I see the times I am.

I don’t think I see me.

So who do I see?

I see round cheeks that my short hair accentuates. I see chubby thighs. I see more declined publications than accepted. A bottom shelf book, a tiny room, zero friends, a job I can’t keep up with, and a sick cat I can’t afford to pay for.

I see a girl who’s scared to try a good school and scared to apply to phD programs because no matter what happens, she is certain they will not work out. Or, more accurately, that she will not work out. A girl who does not know what she is doing.

The people in my life don’t see these things in me, which makes me feel like I’m missing something.

So what don’t I see? I mean, if I was a observer coming in blind, with no knowledge of me at all?

My hair is pretty damn cute. I have calf muscles like nobody’s business. I have more publications than others who have been writing longer. I’m moving soon to a larger place. I’m good at my job, and I like puppies. And my cat is doing well.

See, I can beat up on myself all I want. But that doesn’t make me the person that I think I am. It doesn’t make me underqualified for a phD program or unable to survive a dissertation committee.

When I was back in Wisconsin, I wrote every day. I was a writing then. I was an English major, but, for all intents and purposes, I was English literature. Now I am a creative writing graduate student, and I am lucky to find moments like these at the very end of my day where I can scribble a few incredibly lame words down. I carry around a notebook in the backpack I bring dog walking, but I rarely have time to remember to pull it out. My day is dog dog maybe eat dog dog dog dog dog etc.

I do not feel like a writer. That’s a running theme this week, but it’s the truth. I do not feel like a writer, but it doesn’t mean I’m not one.

After two rounds of heavy struggle bus edits, contract renegotiations, and a myriad of things I don’t understand or know that I did correctly, and I’ll have a shiny new large publication next week. I have survived criticism, rewrites, and editing sadness. Whether I think I know what I’m doing, whether I legitimately know what I’m doing, I’m probably a writer. I might see the bad, but there’s a lot of good there too.

I wrote an author’s note. It’s probably not the best author’s note to ever grace this magazine’s pages, but I did do it. There you have it.

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On Writing

Writing has been hard lately.

I had a difficult semester. I didn’t get a lot in terms of helpful feedback on my work. I was left really disappointed by most of the peeps in my workshop, and by my program in general. Everything I had out for publication was declined, including two pieces that were held for nearly a year by major publications. (Though it’s an honor to have work held, but…you know.) I’m also battling with a publication to which I hold a signed contract that has not yet been fulfilled. So writing is just hard.

It’s hard to find readers. My writing makes people uncomfortable. But I got invited this week to do an online writers group, sort of a last minute thing. The morning of, I looked through my files and found a piece that I thought to be quite good, but that hasn’t been published yet. It’s my struggle—I’ve got cool, well written stuff, but it’s just not getting out there. I printed off all of the submissions from the Facebook group, and almost cried at the caliber. It’s what I’ve been looking for all year and where much of my program lacked. (I have my favorite people. You know who you are). I dutifully marked them all up, with different colors for first and second reads (another thing I largely lost the spirit for last semester), and then scanned them in and sent them back to the authors. During the workshop, my friend set up a video chat on the table so that I could be a giant talking head, a la Sheldon. It was a little hard to figure out a rhythm with them all in Wisconsin and me here, and much harder to interject when I couldn’t use my hands, but I got there. And, quite honestly, I got the single best piece of feedback that I’ve received all year:

“Your writing is powerful, but it’s like punching someone over and over and over and over and never offering them an ice pack.”

I realized immediately that that was what I’ve been missing this year. The ice pack. I’ve been so set on telling a story, just straight forward, no holds barred, telling it, that I forget that the reader needs to know there’s another side. The reader needs to know that I’m not still 16, not still in my 20s, that I’m on the other side.

The problem is, I’m not as confident in myself and my abilities as everyone else seems to be. I still FEEL like a failure. A lot. I do realize that it’s a major accomplishment to pack up all of my things and leave my safety net to move across the country. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like I picked the wrong program. It feels like I picked the wrong city. It feels like I am no longer really a writer. I walk dogs all day, and keep getting more and more dog related things to do. I’ve written more this week than I’ve written since the semester ended, which says a lot as I haven’t written much. This time last year, I was cranking out at LEAST 1000 words a day. And now that I’m getting an MFA? Nothing real for months. The workshop this week was the best writing thing that’s happened this year. I need it again.

I’ve been writing my next book all wrong. And to be honest, I’m not sure that I want to write it anymore. I’m worried I don’t have the distance that I need to have from the material in order to shape it properly. In order to give the reader that other side, that ice pack. I don’t know how to fix my book when I don’t know how to be the 31 year old narrator.

I’m worried that I don’t know who I am a writer apart from my experience.

So please, writing gods, send more readers, more workshops, more valuable feedback. Thesis time is coming, and my publication queue is empty.

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Be Your Best You

I remember a conversation that D and I had, back when I was trying to decide between MFA programs. “I’m worried,” she told me, “that if you go to a program because you’re in love with a person, and you end up not clicking with that person, you’ll be sorry.” This was one of many influential and important conversations I had during that time, and it’s the one I come back to now—because she was right. I am sorry.

*

Rewind, three hours ago. I’m standing on the curb outside an already darkened campus with my seminar professor, T.

“She basically told me I need to be in therapy,” I conclude the story of ‘the worst workshop ever.’

T puts her face in her hands and bends over shaking her head. “You’re right.”

It feels nice to hear someone say that. “There’s this fine line between author me and narrator me. I wish the critiques could be on my work, and not on me personally.”

“It hurts,” she nodded. “And I’m sorry that happened to you, in a class. It shouldn’t have. But as a writer, it’s going to happen. People are going to ask stupid questions. It shouldn’t have happened in a classroom though. It just shouldn’t.”

We form a plan, standing there in the cold, of what my next steps will be. When we’re done, I go to the bar and listen to other students in my program talk about what a great time they’re having, and I conclude that there must be something wrong with me.

*

Rewind, two years ago. I sit in T’s office (the old T) as she says to my face, “I’m worried that you’re running away so fast that you’re going to miss something.”

*

Fast forward, one week ago. “Maybe you stop working on your book for a while,” S says. She’s upset that she hasn’t heard from me in a while. I’ve been busy and let communication slide. But when she had her knee surgery, I sent a card.

“I miss my friends back home,” is all I say in reply.

*

Rewind, four years ago. I open the flier in my undergraduate admissions packet. You get out of college what you put into college. Commuter students that don’t find ways to get involved have a higher tendency to fail and/or drop out.

*

Fast forward, to the bar. “I have a question,” I tell the group after my glass of wine is empty. “For the table.” They all turn to me, and I ask, “What is it about me that y’all are having such great experiences here and I’m not?”

Everyone is quiet for a minute, and then the girl next to me, the only one I’ve never met, says, “It’s just luck of the draw.”

*

Rewind, two weeks ago. I look down at the paper in front of me during writing workshop, at the comments I made on the given essay over the weekend. The narrator has sat down for a game of chess with a man he has already informed us is crazy. The man pulls out a hammer and starts waving it around like a weapon. The narrator does not react on the page. I raise my hand. “How did the narrator feel when he raised the hammer? The narrator doesn’t really react—”

The professor interrupts me. “You have to consider the source there,” she tells the class. Everyone laughs. “Your past experiences color the feedback that you give on everyone’s pieces.”

I am not used to be so deeply tied to my work, and it frightens me that that line is disappearing.

*

Fast forward, last night. I am sitting in ‘the worst workshop ever,’ people firing uber-personal questions at me left and right. I write in the margin of my personal copy of my work—What happened to the line between me as the author and me as the narrator? I want the critique to be on my work, on me as the narrator—not on me as the person who sits in this classroom. It’s the job of the professor to control this line, to maintain it. I put my trust in the process and it let me down. I feel like she let me down.

*

Rewind, one year ago. “I look forward to hearing about the conversations you will have with people there,” N tells me as we sit on our normal couches on the third floor of the library. “To hearing about the things you learn.”

“I’m not ready to go.” I finger the edge of the book we are studying.

“You aren’t ready to stay,” she counters.

*

Fast forward, to the bar. “Maybe y’all should write fiction for a while,” says the workshop professor I haven’t had yet, but will next semester.

I miss fiction. But I didn’t come here for that. I came here to tell a story. A very important one. Not even just to tell it. I came here to learn to tell it better, and I’m scared that I’m not learning. My student brain doesn’t feel the same as it used to. I don’t feel smart. I don’t feel like I fit.

But I know I don’t want to write anything else.

“I came here for her.”

The professor takes a sip of her wine, but the glass isn’t big enough to disguise the expression on her face. Her feelings are obvious.

“I’ll say this,” I say, so quietly she has to lean across the table to hear me. “She’s made me a better writer.”

Maybe we haven’t clicked like I assumed we would. But I AM a better writer.

*

Rewind, sometime last year. N and I stand in the parking lot on campus after our weekly TA dinner meeting. “You be you,” she told me as we walked towards our cars. “You do what you need to do, but you be you. Your best you.”

I was not my best me then, but I really, really wanted to be.

*

I am sorry that I came here for a person. But I don’t think I’m sorry that I came, because I’m a better person for it.

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Power

Last night I was asked to consider why I present my story the way I do. Why I don’t reflect. Or rather, why me now does not reflect on me then. I suppose that’s because me now has no idea what she thinks of me then. And not just that, but I’m not sure the passage of time allows for me to get the distance I need to fully reflect. I’m still inside.

I sat in T’s office last night, and we had The Talk. She told me that in ten years, I will find a different meaning in my material. Even in one year, writing the story, I will find a different meaning than the one I find now. She asked what meaning I was trying to draw from my book as a whole.

“I…I’m not sure,” I stammered.

She sank back in her chair. “I have to ask you some difficult questions.”

“Hit me.” My arms were folded in front of me protectively, and I shifted, suddenly aware of the unconscious words my body language might be speaking.

“How did you view the relationships with the women you wrote about? I mean, back then.” That was not the question I had expected. She must have realized this, because she continued, “Let’s try again. Were you friends?”

I thought about this for a second. “Well, no. Friendly? Yeah.”

“It took me well into the first chapter to realize they were professors, not fellow students. I kept asking myself, why would a student care about this paper? Homework? A student wouldn’t, but a professor would.”

“Okay?” I had absolutely no idea what she was trying to say.

“You didn’t think it was weird that you went to professors, not peers?”

“I didn’t have peer friends.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure? It’s just really hard to connect to people, I guess. I know, I know. It’s weird. Sad.”

“You make so many mentions in the chapter about being alone. About not having anyone to go to. So what does it say about you that the people you do go to are these women? These professors?”

“I…”

T waved a hand in the air and laughed. “You don’t have to answer now. Just think about it. I told you, difficult questions.”

I nodded, saying nothing.

“It seems to me that the meaning, at least from the chapters you gave me, is about relationships, and what they mean.”

That wasn’t what I was trying for in the writing. But as I rode the subway home that night, as I lay in bed and pondered the question, I could only think about power relationships. I picked them because I wanted someone to tell me what to do. What is it about me? It’s that I have always had relationships that told me what to do next. Where to go, what to wear, who to be. And it was a default; I went to the power relationship because I was lost without it. I didn’t know how to have peer friends, and I still don’t. I feel separate from everyone, and that’s a separation I have created myself. I feel like I felt that I had a right to professor/student relationships because I was certain of my role as a student. But I didn’t have a right to peer/peer relationships because I was uncertain of my role as a person. I still am.

The MFA–a therapy program in academic clothing.

T also mentioned last night that I should find a therapist here. Not because I’m crazy, or because I’m losing it, but because therapy would help me to learn how to reflect. And when I can do that, I can make my writing better. Stronger. If that means therapy again, I guess that’s cool?

So what IS the meaning? My book isn’t just about rape. It’s about how abuse completely fucks with the course of all the things. How it screws you up irrevocably; how it’s incredibly difficult to change the tape that abuse records into your brain. It’s about power, and who does and doesn’t have it. Who we give it to, and who we take it from. And why.

In other news, I think I’ve found the thesis adviser I want. Anyone that can make me really think in this way is okay in my book.

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