The Light is not Salvation: The Difference between Graduate School and the “Real World”

Light at the end of the tunnel cartoon

I was looking for a happy ending...or maybe just an ending.

I’ve had this blog post germinating in my brain for a while, and the end of spring quarter seems like an opportune time to share it. It also seems a little cruel to all you lovely MFA students who just graduated because what I’m about to say is the opposite of hopeful: Life outside of graduate school, what some call the “real world,” can be a floundering, heart-wrenching experience. Let me explain.

I used to be under the impression that graduate school, or academia in general, wasn’t much different from the rest of the world. Maybe I saw it as a microcosm, a more manageable chunk of real life, that still required the daily monotony of  mundane tasks and bureaucracy that exists in most environments. Just days ago, I realized I don’t believe this anymore.

I overheard one of my colleagues telling a student that school and real life are pretty much the same thing and that the student shouldn’t feel like he isn’t participating in real life just because he’s in school. I perked up at this because I realized that I was, maybe for the first time, internally disagreeing with this notion. Sure, the student shouldn’t feel any sense of guilt or remorse for burying himself in books rather than sloughing all that off for something more “real.” That’s not the part I disagree with.

The notion I disagree with is that academia and the “real world” are the same realities with the same expectations and safety nets and check points. This is simply not true. And here’s how I know: The light I saw coming at the end of that long tunnel of education when I graduated with my MFA, the one I thought held hope and opportunity and greatness, the light I thought would save me from obscurity and meaninglessness, that light, I’m sorry to say, was a mirage.

In graduate school, I was spurred on by weekly workshops that demanded new poetry and fellow writers who demanded better and, well, quite practically, lots and lots of resources: Pam, the faculty, the conference room full of literary magazines and past students’ theses, Voice Over once a month…. In graduate school, I was working toward that light, the belief that if I worked my ass off something good would happen. I was looking for a result, a prize, a destination. These are things the real world does not offer, at least not immediately, as my gratification would have it.

For the longest time, I, too, believed that school was really just an extension of the outside world, but the real world does not require weekly thesis meetings or, quite frankly, care if you ever write another word in your life, much less publish. The “real world”–by whatever matrix it’s been created–ties strings to all of your desires and pulls…hard and fast, until you do one of two things: say mercy and give up or cut the strings.

What does cutting the strings look like? For me, it means teaching less, making my students something other than first priority, and seeking out nourishment that will satiate those desires that have been perishing over the past year. My friend and fellow poet Jess Lakritz and I applied to the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop this summer. (We’ll find out in a couple days whether or not we got in. Keep your fingers crossed!) I’m not teaching or working at all during the month of August and half of September. Instead, I’ll do yoga three days a week, write daily, polish my thesis poems a bit more, and submit. I will not think about my teaching life at all in August. This is a promise I’ve made to myself. It’s the only way I’ll stay sane.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that the life I’m living now is not the one I’d expected when I graduated a year ago. In some ways, it’s richer because it’s unexpected. More than anything, what I’ve learned since graduation is that my attitude of entitlement stemmed from the expectation that my life would continue on an upward track of achievement. I wasn’t prepared for the quiet, the stillness, the nothingness that followed. I’ve reluctantly crawled beyond the tunnel, the light has faded. Now I’m moving toward something new called self-reliance and self-discipline.

If you’re just leaving graduate school, what are your expectations for yourself out there in the big, bad world? How do you plan to keep your desires from being ripped apart (sorry for the melodrama, but gotta continue with the metaphor)?

I suppose if I could give one bit of advice it would be to be patient with yourself. If your true longing is to become a writer, you will find the time, but it may be in time, and the “real world” will make room for you if you stab the crap out of it over and over again with a sharp object.


  • MelinaCR says:

    Haha. So true. I have also been putting (a lot) more time and effort into living and absorbing than into writing, which is not a distinction I ever like to make, but sometimes they don’t come together in the way they’re supposed to.
    I love what you say about entitlement and achievement. But sometimes I can’t tell if I should be less hard on myself about it all, or more. Do you know what I mean?

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Yeah, I know what you mean, but I guess my feeling is that beating ourselves up isn’t going to create anything for us. Sitting down and writing will. Making a commitment to prioritize our art over other things will. Feeling like a big ol’ failure, not so much.

      • MelinaCR says:

        Yes, and feeling like a failure is part of that sense of entitlement.
        Also I think all worlds (real or not) need you to keep writing.

        • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

          I’ve gone through stretches when I didn’t have the time or focus or desire or whatever to write anything at all. That might even be part of the whole thing for me — a sort of up and down, writing not writing, thinking/seeing like a writer and then having that fall away. It’s always sort of terrifying — that falling away — because it feels like I’m not seeing as sharply or feeling the world as fully or something. But that’s what I seem to do.

  • Seth Marlin says:

    Thank you for this post. I don’t think it’s cruel; I think it’s an acknowledgment that the world owes us nothing as students. I’ve had lots of friends who coasted along through school, assumed it would all just “come together” and never set to work building their own futures. These friends are now working at places like Petsmart. As a nontraditional student on the other hand, I never even thought I’d have my degree, let alone get into grad school. So all this is really just gravy. I admire what you say here, and your last paragraph in particular is especially sage. So again, thank you.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Thanks, Seth. I’m a big fan of nontraditional students. That’s another term for “I’ve got more sense than many of my counterparts because I’ve lived a little,” which is a necessity in my book. Necessity for what? Wisdom, perseverance, and ultimately, probably success. I’ve enjoyed your first blog posts, by the way. Welcome to the fold. :) I used to blog regularly, but I haven’t had time for a while. Maybe this summer I’ll get back to it.

  • Awesome and very honest post Jaime. I too find it hard to handle a real world job and find time for my writing. I think teaching sometimes require so much creative input–no matter which subject you teach–that the well is dry when it comes to working on our own projects. Like you, the only thing that saves me is coming to terms with not being able to write every day during the school year, but allowing myself to concentrate only on me and my writing during the breaks.

    As for “but the real world does not…care if you ever write another word in your life, much less publish.” I deal with that by having critique partners and writing groups. In the real world, the people that care the most whether you write or publish are other writers–just like in school. (Oh, and I really do care about you continuing writing and publishing.)

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Hey Asa, thanks for caring. Seriously. I just got the letter from Squaw Valley saying that I didn’t get in this summer. Phooey! I’m feeling a little let down, but maybe this is for the better. I’ll save money and have more time to write from home. Anyway, your comment helped.

      • Been there Jaime. I applied last summer and didn’t get in. It ended up being a really productive summer because after the “I’ll never amount to anything” feeling faded away, it was replaced by “who needs them, and I’ll show them” feeling to finally just ending up in the joy of writing for long periods of time again.

        • JaimeRWood says:

          Sweet! I’m starting to get that “who needs them” feeling, so I’m hoping to have a very productive summer, too. :)

  • Tiffany says:

    I’ve always balked at that distinction, “real world” versus school. I knew I was in the real world while in school. I was a fairly non-traditional student as well. Now I’ve decided, my real problem is the choice of terminology. School is just as real, in some ways at some times it felt more real, but there is a massive difference between being in school and being in the working world. Leaving that supportive community you get in school, with close ties to other people who share the same values and goals is harsh, true, but I’m not sure its the biggest distinction. Whether or not you think graduation is going to be an entitlement and everything is going to fall into place, the real difference between school and the working world is the definition/path of success. You know what progress is in school. Whether you coast through without thought to after, or push hard for to prepare, progress, advancement, success is a clear goal. Outside school, it isn’t clear anymore. Sure, as a writer, publication is a clear goal, but in the working world the rest of what we are has goals and successes to reach too: travel, parenthood, financial success, stability, even the discovery of a social niche, as well as the given improvement of writing skills (notably not necessarily connected to publication) are all suddenly equal on the map. I think it is this pathless terrain where a person must individually decide what success will look like that forces a specific type of maturity that people unknowingly reference when they refer to “life in the real world.” I say unknowingly because personally I think it isn’t a given that people who didn’t go to school, but went straight to the work force, have this maturity. They may well have accepted someone else’s definition of success and never explored the options. So welcome to the real world new graduates, and remember for some people success is muffin making (Thanks Christopher Howell; I never took your class, but I’m still working on that lesson).

  • Brett says:

    I can sympathize to an extent; like Sam, my writing/submitting/writerly life comes and goes in stretches. Working a normal job and teaching often are pretty draining, and for a week or so at a time I only want to drink beer and play FIFA09 on the Wii.

    But I eventually I snap out of it and get back to poetryland. Established commitments like Bark and KO help me a lot–they are my version of Catholic guilt–so I don’t stay away for too long. And writing blog posts or anything really usually gets me going on writing my own stuff eventually.

    And that’s a nice balance, I think. I’d love to do nothing but read and write, but that’s not likely to pay the ol’ mortgage and student loans. I’ll take this mix any day, as it is a pretty sweet deal, I think.

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Yeah, I think I probably have a pretty sweet deal, too, and I’ll feel that more once I’ve settled into it a little more. The adjunct gig is tough: no home base, no benefits, little job security. But it does allow for some freedom that wouldn’t be possible in a 9-5 job. I pretty much set my own hours, can sometimes work from home, and get to teach others to write. Not bad, really.

      • Brett says:

        Yeah, the adjunct life hard, but I like it too. I teach at a few career colleges around here, and when I’m teaching (and working the normal editing job), my writing life is curtailed, but doesn’t disappear entirely. Thankfully, at the career colleges where I teach, the classes are accelerated so they don’t last particularly long, which is good, because otherwise I might burn out.

  • Shira Richman says:

    Good advice, Jaime. We do need to be patient with ourselves and all of the living that gets in the way of writing is so important to the insight and depth that makes writing worth the while for readers.

    When poet David Wojahn came to Eastern as a visiting writer he said the one thing he wishes he had done differently relates to that patience of which you speak, Jaime. He said he wishes he had been less hard on himself, worried less about “making it” and getting published, that he had been able to let himself trust the process more. I wish I had an exact quote, but that is the gist of what he said as I remember it.

    Anyone else remember this moment with Wojahn?

    • JaimeRWood says:

      Thanks for sharing this, Shira. It’s good to know that more “successful” poets are saying what I’m saying. I think one thing that’s bothering me isn’t so much the “making it” in terms of outside acknowledgment, but rather the internal excitement and satisfaction I get from writing and the fact that I’ve so easily allowed myself to put that aside for the practical necessities of life. I’ll figure this out though. Writing is important to me, always has been, and I’ve never gone without it for long.

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