I've spent thirty days of my life on this beach in the past two years. I've walked out onto the sand, feeling it give under my feet, waves lapping at the toes of my boots, and feeling utterly grateful to find a life where I never expected it.
I started my MFA program in Seaside, Oregon, and ended it there, although graduation ceremonies closer to Portland in June will formalize it all. But I could walk across that stage in June or not walk, wear the cap and gown or hang at home in jammies, and the degree is still mine. I now have a master's.
I don't even know what that means, other than that now I can tell how awful my writing is. If there is ever a time when the adage "The more you know, the more you don't know," holds true, this is it.
It is, at the same time, awful, and awfully better.
I read 86 books in the last two years - most of which I really loved and would never have otherwise heard of. I wrote over two hundred pages of a novel, put it aside and wrote six short stories, rewriting them until my fingers nearly bled - and probably my advisor's eyes bled. He was too kind to tell me if he winced every time my packets came in, but I suspect.
The thing is, somewhere towards the end, I suddenly got it. Just... a year of slamming my head against the keyboard over these short stories, not getting what seemed to be basic elements, everything on the page looking awkward and clumsy, and suddenly it was if someone took the blindfold off my eyes and I could see what I was doing wrong, and how to do it better. I could see why it wasn't working, why my characters felt like puppets I was moving around rather than real people, why my stories bored me, why the endings never worked. It was the entire cliched light-bulb moment.
I'd like to say it just took a lot of writing, the proverbial practice makes perfect, but I have to give most of the credit to Pete, who gave my work more attention than it deserved, who didn't give up even when I kept making the same mistakes, who doled out words of wisdom when I needed them to keep going, and eventually, praise that felt hard-earned.
So I headed to Seaside with two purposes... to present my thesis in front of the faculty and student body - a 15 minute critical introduction and a reading of one of my stories - and a thesis review with my advisor and three other students who'd also poured over my work.
I was nervous about both, but they went exceptionally well - much much better than I expected - and for the rest of the residency, I felt like I'd taken some euphoric drug.
There was such opportunity to be sad - the ending of this all. Sad is what I do when things end. I'm not a huge fan of change.
But a few of us decided we could be sad, or we could be happy, and that choice was up to us. So we chose happy. Happy to get to spend this time together before going on with our lives. Happy to have finished and have writing we were really proud of. Happy to explore the coast, soak up rare Oregon sun, hang out late at night, drink wine, hover around a bonfire on the beach in below freezing temps, sing at karaoke, dance. We chose happy.
(These are two of my three closest friends from the first day of the program.)
(This is at Cannon Beach, one free afternoon when we headed over the hill from Seaside to have seafood at the cutest little cafe and wander the beach. )
(Jeanne and Beth and I, the last night... choosing happy over tears. The motto was No Tears Until After Dinner, but we didn't even cry later. How can you cry when these people who I didn't know two years ago are now such a big part of my life? And distance now is such a little thing...)
(Me and Katie at Karaoke... she brought Gangnam style glasses for the entire crew that were a huge hit. Every time I see Katie, it's like no time ever passed. We will be texting each other for many years to come.)
It was below freezing on the beach, and if you stood too far from the fire, you froze. An inch closer and you actually felt your legs had burst into flames. It was awesome!
(Pete and Jack at the bonfire. Pete was my advisor for two semesters - practically a saint for that - and Jack workshopped with me for two residencies. These are some of my favorite guys!)
(Pete and I at the graduation dinner.)
So I'm done. What next?
I don't know. I'm taking it day by day. The first few days home I just caught up on laundry and groceries and cleaning from being gone. I spent the weekend with the kids, watching movies and playing Wii and talking. I read a book just for fun. I didn't worry about deadlines. I wasn't stressed. I just... lived.
Today starts a new plan. I thought I was going to work on a novel again. During residency I was sure I would go back to Prodigal and do it right. But when I opened the computer, it still feels awfully muddied. Another novel - an old idea I fiddled with during my writing block phase a few years back - started brewing. But yesterday I had a short story pulling at me. Short stories are short term commitments. It might be fun to work on one just to get back into writing for me. It might be fun to look at magazines to submit to before diving back into novels and agents and the publishing industry.
So. I don't know. And I'm okay with that right now. I'm feeling my way, but going forward. I'm sort of excited just to play around with all the tools I've gathered over the past years, see if what I learned stuck.
I know why they call graduation commencement. One era may have ended, but the rest of life and this writing journey is just beginning.