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.