Last week I braved the pandemic and returned to Rowan University for my commencement. Sweltering heat in a cap, gown and cape wasn’t how I envisioned a Wednesday in July, but we are living, as the pundits claim, in unusual times.
The ceremony ended my four tumultuous years as a grad student. Anxiety, stress, and constantly obsessing over projects. A two-hour nightly round-trip commute to campus and back home. An uneasiness at being the oldest student in the program, surrounded by Millennials whose optimism and eagerness conflicted with my world-weary Gen-X grumpiness.
Self-doubt and impostor syndrome.
Insomnia and depression.
Brain a bubbling stew of neuroses and angst.
These fears and insecurities are now gone, banished with a ceremony on University Green and the stirring strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
My long scholarly nightmares are over.
I now have a Master of Arts in Writing!
Completing this degree was a dream come true. Dreams aren’t fanciful delusions or fantasies you have when you’re cloud gazing. They’re blueprints for your future, goals you strive to make real until one day you’re standing on a stage with your peers all in masks and fearing you won’t catch a deadly virus while celebrating your achievements even though the world is crashing and burning around you.
This wasn’t the graduation ceremony anyone asked for.
This isn’t the reality anyone asked for.
But it’s the one we have.
It’s the one we’re stuck with.
And it’s a fitting end to the pressures I faced in my academic life.
That’s why I’m celebrating the Class of 2020. I’m cheering our resolve, especially the last semester, spent half in the classroom and half online. I’m celebrating the unprecedented commencement where everyone wore a mask. I’m celebrating that even in a country run by anti-intellectual brutes, we can recognize academic achievement.
Only five out of fourteen M.A. in Writing students attended the commencement. We graduated with a portion of the Ric Edelman College of Communication & Creative Arts and all of the School of Earth & Environment under a tent, seated on sanitized folding chairs six feet apart.
The ceremony provided closure for my studies, a way of reflecting on progress and setting a course for future endeavors.
For me, this wasn’t just a few hastily taken photographs and an empty diploma cover.
The Writing program taught me story structure, the publishing industry, research, and writing for various audiences and ages. I learned how literary journals operate, preparing a publishing proposal, editing stories and providing feedback in a workshop setting, and writing novels.
Everything comes at a price. We sacrifice in order to grow and achieve. My boss was incredibly patient and let me leave work early so I could beat the traffic to campus. My social life whittled away to a hermit’s existence. Time spent writing, reading, and studying dominated my daily routine. I was determined, irritable, resolute. I had a Mac laptop, a backpack, and an indecipherable writing journal. I became a bleary-eyed grad student, pushing my way through campus, fueled on Starbucks and Cool Ranch Doritos.
I destroyed bad habits, lazy writing and past prejudices (the “journalese” from my long journalism career) and burned that shit to the ground. In its place arose a new devotion for storytelling. Writing became a craft, a meticulous, skilled practice. Editing with precision, the stories took shape, the characters detailed and involved. Crisp, clever prose replaced superficial tropes.
My personal library grew, filled with the essentials – Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I devoured Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, Chuck Wendig’s Damn Fine Story and Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer.
With every shitty first draft (Thanks, Anne Lamott) I gained more confidence. My mistakes were revealed with every peer critique and fiction workshop. I attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Washington, D.C., had an excerpt of my novel entered in a contest, and was indicted into the graduate honors society.
I learned several valuable lessons:
Write from a painfully honest place.
If you force yourself to keep writing your mind will be inspired.
Express ordinary and extraordinary details to present the truth.
Writers have a moral duty to describe things in detail.
I wrestled writer’s block and pulled those words from my brain, dragging them kicking and screaming into the world, frog-marching those stubborn motherfuckers onto the page. Anyone who tells you writing isn’t hard is either lying or can’t fathom the sheer insanity of being a writer: Locking yourself in a room, hearing your protagonist’s voice in your head, plotting their every move, drenching paragraphs and chapters with red ink. It’s a frustrating and futile exercise, but ultimately rewarding if you don’t get discouraged.
After several years of grinding away and spewing orphaned word babies, I finally sold a short story.
Then I sold another.
Then my novella was accepted for publication.
I credit the graduate writing program with making me a published author. According to the multitude of agent rejection emails I’ve received, the publishing industry is highly subjective. There’s no magic incantation or secret formula. It’s all a numbers game. The law of averages. The more you do something, the more competent and skilled you become. Not every writer needs grad school, but it helped me focus and take writing seriously. Your mileage may vary.
I persevered. Up every morning, butt in chair, fingers on the keyboard, typety-typing away. Write more and one day you’ll create something that’ll blow the doors off the world. I’ve yet to reach that stage. Maybe I’ll get there. Maybe I won’t. The thing is, I’m better equipped for that journey than before.
The students I befriended in the program, especially during my final year, are some of the most amazing writers who will dazzle the literary world. Each one of them possessed imagination and drive. They’ll be successful authors, conduct readings of their works, teach university writing courses and achieve accolades from the publishing world’s glitterati. All are fearless badasses and their work will grace endcap displays in future bookstores.
I’m proud of you, fam. You’re awesome.
I’m thankful for my professors, who critiqued my work and helped me nail the voice and style for my final project. Their advice encouraged and nudged me to complete my novel. They demystified the editing process and taught me the necessities for writing captivating stories.
This Master of Arts degree brings me solace and comfort and shakes me from my apathy into action. It made me a more engaged writer, one who fell in love with words and storytelling. It showed me that you’re never too old to pursue your passion. Dig deep, emit a battle howl, and dive in. Finish what you start and realize rejection is part of the process.
Some days, when rejection hits hard, you feel like the loneliest person on Earth. It’s like your voice is muted. You silently scream and nobody can hear you. The impostor syndrome creeps in. The doubt. The rage. You fill up on carbs and sugar and stare out of the window at the garden. You contemplate throwing in the towel and working as a Walmart greeter, welcoming obese octogenarians on motorized scooters to your retail hell. Then the Muse throttles you by the collar, shaking you like some two-bit gangster from a 1940s noir movie. You string a few words together, then more. Soon you’re writing sentences. Then paragraphs. For your final trick, you produce a complete story.
You’re a writer, a sage on the page, a misanthrope with a caffeine addiction and piles of books you’ll never read. You’re a Zoom meeting prophet, a furious nomad locked inside imagination and dread.
This is life as a scribe in pandemic America.
Now hail the Muse, praise Thoth and get back to work.