I’m in debt after graduating with a B.A., a M.A., and a M.F.A. I’m in debt on what I call “the palace in my mind,” i.e. the fortress of knowledge I spent my twenties and early thirties scaffolding while sheltered by Alma Maters’s Ivory Towers and the professors and colleagues therein who nurtured its development and my hope. One bonus of being in debt on that kind of fortress, rather than, say, having gone into debt in order to buy a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home with an open floor plan and hardwood floors, is that entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can’t repossess it. Nothing but the degeneration of my mental faculties can ever take it away from me. Still, there are some days when I can’t think of the phrase “terminal degree” without thinking of the phrase “terminal illness,” as though earning a terminal degree doesn’t symbolize a final accomplishment upon which I can hang my hat, so much as it does having crossed a threshold into a state of existential (and financial) crisis characterized by a series of struggles that I’m destined to suffer (mostly) alone. When I graduated with a MFA in Creative Writing, I was "hooded" one last time and then danced across a campus into the literary wilderness, the palace in my mind full of hopes of prosperity that had yet to be tested by the elements. In theory, that palace was sturdy enough to prosper on its own after I turned my tassel and “Pomp and Circumstance” faded.
But what does prosperity actually look like? Is it worth the struggles and loneliness I’ve sometimes endured while trying to achieve it?
Typically, as far as I know, anyway, after you graduate with a terminal degree in Creative Writing, editors of literary journals and/or independent or Big Five publishers take the place of your professors and colleagues when it comes to reflecting back to you the degree to which you’re prospering. Your prosperity is measured by the degree to which this fleet of Quality Control admires the palace you constructed while earning your degree (the stories or poems you wrote in school), and then by the degree to which they admire the remodels or additions to it that you construct afterward (your revisions of the stories or poems you wrote in school, and/or the stories or poems you've since written and submitted for publication). Unlike your professors and colleagues, these individuals aren’t necessarily invested in your development (and “how darling,” or “best of luck,” they might say, about your hope). In short, your prosperity is measured by the quantity and “quality” of your publications.
I can’t speak for all of my colleagues from graduate school -— and I’d argue there’s a difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write and/or actually writing —- but when I left that final Ivory Tower and retired my tassel to the rearview mirror of my 10-miles-to-the-gallon 1978 Cadillac Coup Deville named Jack (after Jack Kerouac), my hope that I had an answer to workshop questions like why was I telling my stories, and who would care about them, and, more importantly, maybe, that the hard work I’d continue to put in to crafting those stories would lead to good fortune remained. I didn’t want to believe the things I’d published while I was in graduate school —- if only because I had access to masters in the field who guided me as I polished the prose and poetry -— would be akin, in the nature of their legacy, to a one-hit-wonder like Timbuk 3’s hit “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” the title line of which my dad has said to me each time I’ve earned a degree, despite the fact that the song is actually about the threat of a nuclear holocaust, rather than about graduation.
I wanted to believe my hope was more than just a darling that should be murdered.
I wanted to be taken seriously.
If I were to measure my prosperity in the literary wilderness based on the degree to which the palace in my mind has passed Quality Control since I graduated with a terminal degree in Creative Writing, I suppose any complaint I might make wouldn’t be entirely warranted. Each year, for my current job as a lecturer at one of my Alma Maters’s English Departments, I’m required to update my Curriculum Vitae. In Latin, curriculum vitae means “[the] course of [my] life.” In the halls of an Ivory Tower, it’s a document that answers the given Tower's question about what you’ve done to date that qualifies you to be in your current position, or, in some cases, what you’ve done to date (since you last submitted the document, say) that might qualify you for a promotion to a more prestigious position. I should say that another way one’s prosperity is measured after she graduates with a terminal degree in Creative Writing is by the degree to which she succeeds professionally, her achievements in the literary wilderness aside (if she has obtained a career in her field, for example, and what that career is and where). I say any complaint I might make while measuring my prosperity based on the degree to which the palace in my mind has passed Quality Control wouldn’t be entirely warranted because each time I’ve updated “the course of my life” I’ve had updates to make. However few and far between, I’ve crafted additions to the palace in my mind that, whether “hits” in the sense of a paradigm like Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 (forgive the mixed metaphor), or not, have passed Quality Control so as to have been printed for readership/s, however vast or nominal in number. In theory, I’m not a ghost. But I do sometimes wonder whether the struggles and loneliness I’ve endured while hammering them out was worth the brief burst of congratulatory remarks received via Facebook when I muster up enough courage to say, “Look what I made,” immediately regretting having done so, of course, regardless of how elated I am. I should also say that another way one might be inclined to measure her prosperity after she graduates with a terminal degree in Creative Writing is by the number of likes that her posts on social media about her victories inspire.
That said, if you’ve seen the show Black Mirror, you might remember the episode titled “Nosedive,” which is set in a futuristic world in which people can rate each other’s popularity out of five stars, like one can rate a restaurant on a YELP review. One’s rating determines her eligibility to live in certain communities or to rent certain cars, among other things. Basically, the higher one’s rating is, the more opportunities she has to “better” her life. One’s punishment for “misbehaving” in public is a deduction to her rating. Lacie, the protagonist in “Nosedive,” is obsessed with her rating. In the beginning of "Nosedive," Lacie has a rating of about 4.2. In order to be able to afford to move to a “luxurious” community called Pelican Cove, she must either pay the price in dollars (she can’t afford to) OR earn a discount on the cost by having a rating of 4.5 or above. Her efforts to improve her rating ultimately fail, and it’s when she hits rock bottom and winds up incarcerated that she’s finally able to truly be herself and to say what’s TRULY on her mind without fear of receiving a bad rating for having done so. Likes and shares on Facebook, after you've posted about a Quality Control victory, can feel a little like the stars did to Lacie. There are, of course, algorithms at play when it comes to the population a post on Facebook reaches (and who wants a disingenuous like?), but I’m not ashamed to admit (well, maybe I am, actually...maybe that’s part of the point I’m trying to make), that when the likes are low, the champagne in the celebratory champagne bottle emoji I might include in such a post “tastes” flat, or that I do, indeed, feel like Lacie in “Nosedive” when she’s trying so desperately to improve her rating, only to have her efforts to do so lead her to crashing a wedding in a tattered bridesmaid’s dress, where, still clinging, however hopelessly, to her hope to live in Pelican Cove, she falls.
I was taught in graduate school that a writer’s audience matters. How bold to want to be published -— to not only believe that my stories should be told, but to also believe an audience wants to read them, and that I can win an editor’s or publisher’s (let alone, in turn, a readership's) approval. If those with whom I'm connected on social media aren’t even seeing, let alone liking, the posts about my few and far between victories -— an essay here, a poem there -— what’s the point of even celebrating them? Then again, why am I relying on social media to validate my victories in the literary wilderness, to put the bubbles in my champagne? Isn’t that the kind of attitude that does lead one to fall (on her face), whether literally or metaphorically?
One reason that any complaint I might dare to make about struggling or loneliness when speaking about the nature of my efforts to achieve prosperity in the literary wilderness would be unwarranted is that my Alma Maters didn’t cast me out entirely when I walked away with a hood on my head and a degree in my hand, a palace, however soundly constructed, in my mind. The professors and colleagues who nurtured the development of said palace (and my hope) have supported me beyond my departure from the Ivory Towers in which I first collided with them. These individuals have continued to volunteer their time to be my readership before I send my writing out to Quality Control. It’s largely because of their support that I’ve landed a career that I love and about which I can say I’m proud. They’ve taken me seriously.
Maybe the question I should be exploring then is less about what prosperity looks like and whether the struggles and loneliness that I claim characterize my efforts to achieve it are worth those efforts, but rather why I ever feel as though I’m struggling and/or lonely in the first place, particularly when “the course of my life” reflects an accumulation of bullet points and when, ultimately, I’m not alone.
My answer to the latter question is difficult to articulate. The best I’ve come up with so far takes me back to ballet class in the 1980s. I can only imagine that many a prior “ballerina’s” insecurities (no matter what she’s since become) stem from such a setting.
What I remember most about ballet is being remedial, at best, in my level of skill. My best friends always had prettier leotards and buns and danced circles around me as I dizzied, unable to spot, unable to pirouette without wobbling. Granted, genetics that determine bone structure and coordination might never have promised I’d ever become my childhood hero Vicky Page in The Red Shoes (and Vicky’s fate wasn’t anything to envy, anyway, or so I understand in retrospect...she danced in front of a moving train and died), but the level of frustration I experienced as a wannabe ballerina was a kind of lonely struggle. I cried in the bathroom stall at the Dance Centre about the fact that I couldn’t feel the string of silk that I was supposed to feel connecting the crown of my head to my sitz bones, and whatever teacups my dance teacher had put upon my knees had, I suspected, fallen and broken to pieces. In VHS home videos of me practicing my ballet routines in the living room of my childhood home, even the stereo system was uncooperative at times. “What’s it doooooing?!?” I’d whine, slapping my thighs when the wrong song started to play.
I’ve since adopted the latter expression of lament when speaking about my writing (when I'm feeling down about it), if only when speaking about it with my friend Kristen, who’s been so supportive of me that she’s read just about every draft I’ve written of every essay and poem I’ve dared to forge since we were in graduate school together. Unlike a stereo, however, a piece of writing, like an essay or a poem (or a memoir), isn’t an inanimate object, per se, and in the end the noun for the pronoun “it” in the aforementioned version of my lament is my mind, or my ability to write, not necessarily the piece of writing itself -— the piece of writing itself can’t dooooo anything without me. Ultimately, the slap-my-thighs intensity of that frustration -— the frustration I feel when I worry that I’m not living up to the potential I imagined I would when I hung my tassel from the rearview mirror of Jack the Cadillac -— is, I’ve deduced, symptomatic of a fear, however unreasonable, that I’m on the wrong course in life (maybe I would’ve made a better graphic artist or a detective or a dog groomer), or that “the course of my life” is fraudulent, that, for all I know, my hope is merely darling.
Questions about my prosperity and struggles and loneliness in the literary wilderness aside -- or in spite of those questions, maybe -- there have been a few moments in my writing life since I left school that I’ve felt the stars are aligned, that I’m on the right course, or that I’m not in ballet class in the 1980s.
One of those moments happened recently, though its origin is dated.
When I was earning my B.A. from Western Washington University (WWU) in the early 2000s, I took Advanced Fiction Writing from the novelist Michael Collins. I tend to judge whether events in that period of my life were monumental (or not) by whether I wrote about them in my letters to my husband Ryan or not. Judging this event by that measure, it was monumental. Please note that the excerpt of my letters to Ryan that follows was handwritten originally. Ryan typed my handwritten letters in what I imagine was something of a frenzy (hence most of the typos).
I was starry eyed when I wrote that letter. I might have wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to write (though this point of self-deprecation is debatable). But my sentiment in that letter also goes to show how impactful one mentor’s belief in you can be, and, like my then-protagonist Teanna eventually realizes, how valuable the time between "monumental occurrences" can be.
When Michael had to leave WWU later that quarter, because of a family emergency, I was sympathetic. But I was also bereft, namely because the professor who took his place wasn’t a champion of my writing (she gave me a B- on my novel-in-progress), and because I felt as though I’d lost a valuable mentor.
If you’d told me then that over a decade later I’d reconnect with Michael over social media and that he’d become an advocate of my writing all over again, I wouldn’t have believed you (and not just because social media didn’t yet exist). But that’s what happened. He has, indeed, since advocated for my writing, which is no longer about Teanna and her ennui, so much as it is about a pivotal time in American history, and about experiences I never imagined I'd have while he was telling me about "islands of fiction."
Michael was recently named The Irish Times Book Club Novelist for the month of March. The Irish Times published articles about and by him for a week. One of the first articles in the series was written by one of his past professors from Notre Dame. Though it covers other territory, in gist, that article is a celebration of Michael’s talent and his body of work. Michael decided he wanted to end the series of articles by taking on a role similar to that his past professor had -— by writing an article that celebrates the talent and body of work of his own past students. That article is also about his own journey, but I'm fortunate enough to be one of the students he writes about, or rather a character he encountered while he and his family journeyed the American landscape.
Whatever complaints I might make about "the course of my life," there is so much about which to be grateful, in other words.
However starry eyed I was while writing to Ryan about my conversation with Michael in 2003, having since reunited with Michael, and having been fortunate enough that he has continued to support my writing, I think about our conversation in 2003 constantly as I (however prosperous) now play the role of a mentor in my students’ lives. If a brief encounter like that could encourage twenty-one-year-old me to believe, for the first time in my life, that I was capable of writing well (that maybe one day I’d even write A BOOK -— that I knew what I, what “it,” was doooooing -— imagine how easy it would’ve been to foster a different belief?
In theory, there is no Pelican Cove in the literary wilderness, and ballet in the 1980s is over, but the days when I can't think about the phrase "terminal degree" without thinking of the phrase "terminal illness" lead me to believe, however falsely, that support in the literary wilderness is vital.
When I was a child, I ate graham crackers while watching The Red Shoes -— I dipped them in milk until they dropped on my tongue, over and over and over again. I wasn’t thinking about the struggles an artist faces when she embraces her identity as such.
But I’m thinking about those things now:
Why do you want to dance?
Why do you want to live?
Well, I don't know exactly why, but I must.
That's my answer, too.
I might never know if I would’ve been good at something else. But I do know I want to write. I know that, despite her fate, I feel about writing like Vicky Page does/did about dancing. I imagine a number of my students feel the same way. I ask them why they're telling their stories and shy readers should care, just as my mentors asked me. But I also realize those are questions I'm still asking myself about my own writing, and that if it weren't for the individuals who truly believed/believe in me, it would be easy for me to say, "I don't know....maybe no one cares," and to boot myself off of the page/stage. Sometimes, it takes a long time to win an audience. Sometimes, you don't know why you're telling the story you're telling, just that you MUST. You can only hope others will recognize the validity of your imperative and celebrate your successes along the way, however great or small. Sometimes, the palace in your mind feels like a shack, and all you want/need is some company, however briefly, before you do your best to batten its walls. Sometimes, all you want/need is for someone to remind you not to demolish something before you've even finished putting it together.