When I was in the second or third grade, we had to write and illustrate a “book” that we then glued between two pieces of cardboard and covered with contact paper. Many of my classmates had already decided they were going to be doctors or firemen, but I hadn’t found anything to decide on yet. I remember being embarrassed that everyone could name off their future career sincerely, but I had no idea. Be a doctor? I hated blood. Be a firemen? Fire didn’t like me, which is why I was frequently nursing a scald from touching a hot pot (a lesson I still sometimes need to re-learn some 20+ years later). When I wrote that story, some mystery where a man wearing a black shirt with a snake on it was the one to steal something, I knew I wanted to be a writer. In the 4th grade, I got the highest score possible on a standardized writing test. One of only three students at my entire elementary school to score so well; I was on top of the world.
Come middle school, all of that changed. I took another standardized writing test in 7th grade, but didn’t get the highest score. In the 8th grade, I took a career aptitude test that didn’t tell me to be a writer; it told me I’d be well-suited to work in the post office. I was proficient at differentiating between words, which, I was told, would be great for a mail sorter: Mr. Jones vs. Mr. Janes.
In high school, I wrote plenty, but easily got defeated when I wasn’t the one winning contests or awards. By my first year in college, I was writing and continuing to take creative writing classes, but was inwardly adamant about trying to find another calling, trying to find something with “financial potential”. I sought out pre-law, art history; I took classes in Ancient Greek and the liberal arts.
I cherished my creative writing classes, but felt constantly like creative writing was the bad boy everyone cautioned me away from. He was always lurking around the quad, wearing leather and looking all hot and slick, but I wanted to be a good girl and date a good boy, so I focused on the classics, on religion, on humanities. I thought about majoring in Ancient Greek and then going to law school. I transferred colleges and finally made English: Writing my major, but I studied for the LSAT. I “compensated” for my major with volunteering for the rebuilding efforts on the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina. I started tutoring young kids. People thought big things would happen for me, thought I’d join the Peace Corps or start a nonprofit.
When I graduated, several college administrators asked what I’d do, and I said something self-assuredly like, “I’m going to go into a nonprofit.” “I’m going to take a year off and apply for law school.” I collected generic recommendations from several of my professors and twenty copies of my college transcripts. I never wasted my money on the LSAT, though I did study for it for over a year. I took a job as a grant writer at a small nonprofit and stopped writing creatively altogether. I was miserable. My boss made me extremely uncomfortable, and the company was shady. I started applying for other jobs the second week I was there, but nothing came through. All of the grants I applied for, we didn’t get, and they laid me off.
It was after being laid off that I finally decided to apply to an MFA program. I hadn’t written anything in over a year, but I felt a strong push to do it. I contacted my undergraduate poetry professor to get a more tailored recommendation, and she said she would do it. She tempered her acceptance with a litany of warnings about how the poetry field is not like it used to be, there’s too many people right now pursuing MFAs, and academia is harder and harder to break into, etc. etc.. I got her recommendation and set money aside to apply to seven different programs. Around this time, I ran into the provost from my college. She asked, “What are you doing nowadays?” I told her I was applying to get an MFA in poetry. She looked at me through her thin-rimmed glasses and said, “Oh. I always thought you’d save the world.”
After realizing I was too terrified to move anywhere on my own, I decided to apply only to the one program in my area, and decided if it was meant to be, I’d get in. I did get in, but they didn’t give me any money. I didn’t want to go into debt pursuing this whole writing gig, so I again tried to fantasize about other lucrative educational opportunities. I called my father and told him, “I think I’ll get a Master’s in Teaching.” He told me, as he usually did, “That sounds good.” The deadline to apply had already passed, so I had to wait for the spring semester deadline. Mid-August, a week before U of M’s classes were set to start, I got an e-mail offering me an assistantship, which meant waived tuition on top of a stipend, for the MFA program. I accepted it, quickly registered for classes, and started the following week.
Fast-forward three years, I wrote a thesis, I defended it, I took my comps, I graduated. I applied for several fellowships and several teaching jobs; I got none of them. My undergraduate poetry professor was right: academia is hard to break into, especially with so many people graduating with an MFA right now.
I was talking with a poet yesterday who told me something to the extent of, “Since I’m never going to get rich or really famous doing poetry, I don’t have to be overly ambitious. I can submit when I want to submit.”
I don’t feel that way. I am dogged. My ambitions (writing, submitting, editing, keeping up this blog, getting my book published) aren’t going to pay off for me financially, but they will and do pay off for me spiritually. They also keep me engaged and involved in a community of writers. I write and submit continuously, and while I rarely practice it, I entirely believe in the wisdom of, “Writing 10 minutes every day for 6 days is better than writing for an hour one day out of the week.”
I’ve spent most of my life seeing writing as something I need to “get over”, the bad boy I need to stop fantasizing about when I’m on dates with clean-cut boys. Now, I know that writing is that bad boy that pulls me from the wreckage I can make of myself and helps me bloom into a more competent and confident human being. It makes me better at my job, at my relationships, at my ability to handle life. I must choose the bad boy, every time, or sink into a hole of despair that comes from denying that part of myself that makes me feel wholly alive, wholly happy. I may not be saving the world, but at least I can start with saving me.