Tag Archives: graduation

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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On Graduating College

Today I graduated from college.

I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet, this idea that the college door has closed. I didn’t cry as I drove away, and I completely thought I would. And now, when I look back and try to reflect upon the experience, I find that I can’t. I’m stuck, so pardon me if this takes a cheesy or melodramatic turn.

My first college experience was me auditioning to be a vocal major at UW-Whitewater. I was seventeen years old. I was accepted, which was exciting. But the problem was that I didn’t find out until it was too late; the acceptance package, with my housing and scholarship offers, was buried in a large pile of mail that I never received because I was away for the summer. The day I came back and got the letter was the day before everything was due. At that point, it seemed easier to just ignore it—neither accept nor decline—and just give up the college dream. So I did. I did what a lot of people do after high school graduation; I joined the workforce. In retail.

I worked retail management from 2002 to 2010 in a wide variety of jobs—Walmart, gas stations, pet stores. I bounced back and forth, never able to settle into any management position for more than a year or two. I just wasn’t happy. I was not meant for a career path that equaled continuous abuse. I talked frequently about going back to school, but I never did it. I even went to Gateway a few times to inquire about the process, but I never followed through. In 2008 or so, I actually filled out an application. I made an appointment to see someone in advising, but then I was called away to work. I was on a merchandising trip to Madison, in charge of a complete store renovation, when my phone rang. It was my then-husband:

“I think I’m going to quit my job,” he informed me.

“What?” I asked, dropping the pack of D batteries I had been hanging on a peg-hook. It was funny he would bring this up, because I had just mentioned to him the previous week that if I were to go back to school, I would need to scale back.

“You make enough money to support us, and I want to focus more on travelling with the band. Getting into music and such.”

“Oh, really?”

“Actually, I’ve sort of…”

“What?”

“I already quit.”

I decided then that I wouldn’t go back to school. Not then. It wasn’t the right time, but then, there might never be a right time. I returned home and I worked in retail for two more years. Until our son died. 

Losing my son made me question my entire life. The time we get on Earth is short, relatively speaking, but I don’t think I really understood that until I lost Carter. It occurred to me then that I really could die at any time. The time Carter got on this planet was close to nothing, but I had already had twenty-six years at that point. So as I spent early 2010 both dealing with his loss and watching my marriage explode (and then disintegrate) around me, I realized that there had to be something more. Rather than sit around and let my husband control me, I chose to go out and find that something. 

Find it, I did. 

When I was in grade school, I was the annoying girl that no one liked who got head lice and never got invited to anyone’s house. When I was in high school, I was the girl with the eating disorder who asked too many questions and didn’t have any friends. When I was in the church, I was fulfilling a specific set of expectations that weren’t my own. When I was married, I was fulfilling his wants and needs and putting him before myself. I was always less than everyone and everything else.

College taught me that these things were not okay. College taught me that I am not just one thing, but many. That I do not have to obligate myself to one specific person or thing, but whatever things I choose to. That I do not have to censor myself or act in a certain way or be confined to one mode of expression. College taught me that I can be anything I want to be. When I first came to Parkside, I was terrified of the university as a whole. I wanted no part of anything extra–I just wanted to go to my classes, do my work, and come home. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I’m not big on people. I’ve been hurt; I don’t trust people much anymore. I was very unconfident in the beginning of the semester, and I really didn’t believe I could do anything. In the back of my head, I entertained the possibility that I would fail at school. But, despite many events over the course of the past few years that could have led me astray, I didn’t fail. It was quite the opposite, truthfully. I’m leaving at the top of my class, a fiction editor for the campus literary magazine, a tutor, a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board, completer of research studies, and a general student extrordinaire. Best of all, I have friends. I have met both professors and students that I hope to remain friends with and stay in touch with for a long time to come.

For the first time, I believe I can honestly say that I am happy with who I am. One of my very first college essays, a reading response to “The Ones That Walked Away From Omelas,” states it well:

“I had to make my own happiness. I had to walk away from my friends, my things, my money, and my life as a whole. True happiness doesn’t come from the church. It doesn’t come from having a lot of things or a lot of money. True happiness, much like success, comes as however we personally define it. Right now, my happiness comes from being successful in school and in the work that I do. This will evolve. In five years, perhaps my happiness will come from being involved in a new romantic relationship. A few years down the road from that, maybe my happiness will come from having another opportunity to have children, and the opportunity to raise them up in the way that they should go.  I will achieve happiness, and I will go on from that to find yet another level of happiness. This is the definition of happiness. In essence, it is always changing. We will be happy for a while, but then we won’t be anymore. We will need more. When that happens, we will need to find a new way to be happy. I have learned that we can never put the responsibility for our happiness on other people. The responsibility for our happiness lies solely on our own shoulders, whether it is through our actions, our relationships, or our belongings. Am I happy now? I suppose I could say that I’m content. Am I getting closer to happiness? I think I am definitely beginning to find my way.”

While I am sad to leave Parkside, I am also excited for the new beginnings that this ending will bring me. If I am this strong a person coming out of undergrad, I can’t help but imagine the strength, the gifts, that grad school will bring me. College gave me the gift of me—and it’s a gift that will keep on giving, and a gift I will never, ever have to give back or apologize for. I am excited for the future, excited for what is coming, and excited for this life that is mine for the taking. I never would have found it had I not gone back to school. I never would have found myself.

I believe that my son is somewhere, watching me on this day. I believe that he is proud of me. Not because I graduated college. Because I did it while being me. So thank you, Parkside. Thank you all of my fabulous friends, my professors, my “people.” You are all amazing. 

Finally, finally, I am me.

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Why I Can’t Go to Grad School (And Why I Will Anyway)

At this time last year, I wasn’t sure I would graduate.

I remember sitting with my laptop, trying to wrap up a difficult paper, and realizing that my brain was on shut down mode. There was a lot inside my head that kept from being who I wanted to be. I frequently hid in the third floor stacks at the library, in my special chair that overlooked all the things. I couldn’t walk down the hallway without headphones on because the world was too noisy. Too loud. There was a wall between me and the rest of the world, built brick by brick of the experiences in my life. The easiest way for me to communicate was the written word. So I said “to hell with this,” and decided to throw everything into grad school applications. Because it was easier. Because I could. Because it filled a hole.

I applied to eight different grad school programs. I didn’t think I would get in to any. So where I thought last year that I would be figuring out now what to do with the rest of my life, I am instead figuring out what I will do with the rest of my education. I didn’t realize this decision would be even more difficult. It’s funny, really, that I was so set on the idea that I wouldn’t get in that, while I was sad at my first rejections, I was solid in my backup plan. I didn’t plan to get in.

Not only did I get in. I got in to four. A plethora to choose from.

The choice is narrowed down to two now. 

*

I showed the cost breakdown I had worked out to D. She looked at it, and passed my phone back. “What is it that you like about these schools? Break it down.”

After thinking for a second, I answered, “Well, School A is new, and it’s high up on the rankings list. I already have relationships forming with people there. The program is more of a one on one or two as opposed to a mass advising thing.” I smiled at her. “And you know I like people.” I gestured between the two of us.

She nodded. “I noticed.”

“And the best part is the amount of connection available to the publishing world.” If I want to write eventually, I’ll be closer to knowing people, I thought. “It seems like they really set their students up.” 

“And School B? What is it about that one?” She knew I didn’t like it.

“It’s just…so…Okay. It’s really institutionally. Like, they really lack one on one advising, which I love. The program isn’t as set up in terms of the publishing world. It feels stiff.” And am I good enough to go there? Anywhere? Maybe that’s why it’s stiff. Maybe that’s why it feels like I don’t fit with them. Because I don’t belong there. The things I can’t say.

“Well, maybe it isn’t as connected. But it’s one of the top schools in the country. And you WILL write there. Have you talked to students there?”

“Yes,” I laughed, “you told me to.” I don’t know what to do.

“What’d they have to say?”

“Good things. They like the program, the courses. And they have their magazine, which is amazing.” And it’s all great but I’m freaking out nonetheless. What if I’m not good anywhere else? What if I’m only good here?

“What about what’s coming out of there, what the campus is producing?”

“I’m not sure how to ask about that,” I replied. “They seem like they like it though.” They are all pretty. They are all good. They could all be the right choice. But they could also be so, so wrong.

“What about the ones from School A?”

“I can talk to whoever I want at School A. They’ve really set me up in that way. I could tell you everything from what the courses are like to 

After a minute I added, “I really like the advisor at School A that I’ve been talking to. There’s already a relationship forming.” I’m afraid of being alone.

“I get that. I do. So I suppose it comes down to what you want to do when you graduate.”

“What do you mean?” Will I graduate?

“If you want to teach, go to School B. But if you want to be in publishing, go to School A.”

And if I fail at all these things, what will I do then? Out loud I said, “I’m just scared.”

“I’m just worried about this, about you, financially.”

Me too. But I was more afraid of everything I didn’t know than the obvious thing that I did.

*

Where will I live?

What if the classes are too hard?

What if my roommates are secret axe murderers?

What if I don’t have anything?

What if I have to sleep on the floor.

What if I can’t hack it?

What if I don’t know how to live on my own?

What if I fail?

What if I always belong to HIM?

*

There are a lot of reasons that I can’t go to grad school. I’m comfortable here. I own no furniture. For the first time in my life, I am actually fairly comfortable where I am. I have friends; I have people I can trust and talk to. I don’t want to leave that. Part of it too is that this really is a totally new start of my life. And I take that really seriously after all the life that’s happened to me. So to think that I might screw it up is very frightening to the point where I don’t want to decide at all.

But the truth of the matter, the real truth of it, is that I refuse to trust myself. I refuse to trust my gut, I refuse to trust what it is telling me. I refuse to just buck it up and make a decision. Do I continue, or do I turn back? Do I stay? Or do I go?

There are a lot of reasons why I can go to grad school, or rather, why I should. My GPA is excellent. I’m a good student. I write very well. I could actually make myself proud of me.

I need that new start.

The choice is narrowed down to two now. 

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Threads

I wrote a paper last year regarding how discourse is a prevailing force in the creation of identity.  To this day, it is still one of my favorite papers—not because it’s good (though it is, I think), but because it’s the first time I ever really identified with an assignment.  It was the first time I really started to get myself.  In the introduction to this paper, I compared discourse to Crayola crayons:  “Discourse can be thought of like a box of Crayola crayons.  Crayola continuously invents unique new colors, such as inchworm and fuzzy wuzzy.  When we see a color that we don’t know, we assign  the color to a lesser category in our mind and reject it because we have no prior knowledge of that color.  Without prior knowledge of an experience, or, in this case, a crayon, the experience remains unnatural and not part of our identity.  Once we have seen the crayon and the name on its label, we are then able to know what color to assign it.  Without this assignment of a name, the color does not exist as a category.  This is how discourse functions, bringing us the necessary experiences to shape us into individuals; we give an item power when we name it because we give it existence.  The discourses or experiences that people have and the things that they learn are what make them the people that they eventually become, just like seeing a crayon with a unique name and then associating that name with a color.  Power and knowledge are gained from discourse, and people would be completely different beings without it.  Thoughts, exchanges of ideas, and conversations are unavoidable and affect how people view the things in their every day lives.  Discourse is what forms a person’s individual identity.”

See, I get this paper; I get discourse.  I get it, because there are so many different things that are part of my identity—and they’re not all good.  As a matter of fact, most of them aren’t.  But without all of these different threads, the different experiences that I’ve had, I would not be the person I am right now.  I would not be where I am.  I would not know the things I know.  I would not have the power that I have.  

I have named experiences within my life that I should never have had to name, that no one should have to name.  But I have survived them.  And I’m stronger for them.  The thing about discourse is that I know my strength, and I firmly believe that this is because of what I have endured in my life.  I am strong, and when new things come up I can conquer them because I have named things much more difficult.  I have been shaped into someone who is awesome, and so much more tough than I give myself credit for.  

I’ve been bothered by something for the past few days.  I’m getting ready to graduate, and I met with my advisor to sign up for courses for my final semester.  I only need three more classes to graduate (four to receive financial aid), and I really wanted one of those classes to be Shakespeare.  Not only is our college’s Shakespeare course taught by my advisor (who is awesome), it’s also Shakespeare.  

“Not marble, not the gilded monument / Of prince, shall outlive this powerful rhyme; / But you shall shine more bright in these contents / Than unswept stone, besmear’d with skittish time.”  (Shakespeare, 55th Sonnet)

Beautiful writing.  Enough said.  If you don’t appreciate it, you’ve been living under a rock.  The course is hard—lots of reading, lots of paper writing, lots of discussion.  But my course load next semester was finally going to be low enough in terms of both workload and scheduling that I could make it work.  Until my advisor informed of what would make up a large part of the discussion:  rape, abuse, violence.  Some of it as a comedy.  And I knew then.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to take the course.  I wouldn’t be able to sit through that, but I wouldn’t be able to walk out of class that often.  I wouldn’t be able to be able to maintain a decent grade.  I wouldn’t be able to emotionally take care of myself.  This was something I wanted, for a myriad of reasons, and I had to let it go for my own wellbeing.  I had to sign up for something else instead.  

I beat myself up for it, for a while.  That I wasn’t good enough.  That I was triggered so easily.  That I was still letting people hurt me; that I was always letting people hurt me.  That I would never be okay.  I focused on the bad aspects of the situation, that I am not okay, that I will never be okay, that I couldn’t sign up for the class.  But I can see it now.  I can see that I was so focused on that that I missed the good thing; I had recognized a need in myself.  I had made a good decision in terms of taking care of myself, but I gave myself no credit for that.  I forgot that sometimes, strength comes in just letting yourself be.  Sometimes it feels like I will never really be okay; sometimes I forget that it’s okay to not be okay all the time.  It doesn’t mean that I’m not good enough.  It just means that I’m doing the best I can.  

I was having a text messaging conversation with one of the best writers I know recently, and I told her that she needed to go out and get famous so that I could “know her.”  She responded, “Wait—that’s what I’m expecting of you.”  Her statement really surprised me, that someone who can write so incredibly would infer that I will someday be more than I am now.  I don’t see life in statements of my goodness, but rather in areas where I have failed and lost.  But the funny thing is, I am a good writer.  I hear this all the time.  I don’t understand why it’s so hard for me to see.  I am good at this.  I am good at many things, because I have survived many things.  I am strong because I am still here, because I know the power that I have.

Without all of the threads, without every single piece, without everything I have named…I would not be good at many things.  I would not be strong.  I would not be anything at all.

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