Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Life after an MFA

This week I climb on a plane and head to Oregon for the last time. Even though I officially finished in January, my thesis presentation over and my diploma in the mail, the cap-and-gown hooplah isn't until this weekend.  On Saturday, despite having my Masters for over six months, I will finally walk across the stage.

It's a strange place to be in in my life, this place between finishing and graduating. I will walk across the stage and get my hood along with all my other January cohort, but also with those who have spent the last few days giving their presentations, just now finishing. They are excited and on the thesis euphoria, the way I was in what seems like so long ago. I, on the other hand, have long ago come down off that mountain high.

A few months ago a prospective student emailed me, asking about the program at Pacific, about the teaching and the students, and, finally the money question: "What do people from Pacific do when they graduate?"

I told her the truth: Anything they want to do. Everything, really. Some go on to write novels and travel on book tours. Some go on to work on literary magazines. Some actually start their own lit mags. Some publish stories and poems, some go on to get PhDs, and some go back to their jobs as computer programmers and teachers and retail clerks.

I don't know what I thought I would do. Slip back into my pre-school life, I suppose. Go back to writing the way I had been before. Finish the novel. Submit some of the stories from my thesis. Blog more, catch up on publishing news. Just... the same stuff.

Instead, I slid back a decade, to those years before blogging and writing, when life was consumed by being a mother and wondering how we'd make ends meet. I did laundry by the ton, scoured the bathrooms, cleaned the floors, filled the pantry with food, cooked new recipes, went on field trips with my fourth grader, watched TV and made crafts with the kids, took them on hikes through our county parks, explored our woods, took the dog to the river every day to swim. I fill my days with full-time motherhood.

And a few hours a day I pour over employment options. The kind that comes with a paycheck. With student loans looming and the government sequestration and cuts affecting our family, I need an income a little better than the floundering writing world provides.

It is, in equal parts, invigorating and soul-sucking.

I am exhausted by not writing, by the lack of sense of purpose that comes from putting words on a page. It breaks my heart to not be able to write: to stare at the page and wonder if the story in my head will be worthy of the education, will do justice to my advisors, will provide an income. To have those worries and stresses freeze the words before I can put them on the page.  It breaks my heart to worry that time spent writing is time wasted, time I should spend doing something more practical.

I miss most the community. I'm afraid that if I say, "I'm not going to write now. Now I'm going to tutor college students and edit other people's novels," that I am letting down a host of people who believed I could write. I worry what I will do with this blog. I worry about how I will tell everyone who knows me as a writer, who views me through that lens that says, "She is part of my writing circle." If I have spent not just the past two years but the past seven years of my life identifying as a writer, will people know I am still the same person if I don't focus on writing now?

A friend was joking with me about the coming graduation speech. "I hope," she said, "they do not go on and on again about how important and in demand a degree in humanities is. I hate the way they always say CEOs have realized people with good communications skills are more valuable than any other degree." She's right. Maybe companies with good paying jobs do want someone who can communicate well, but they still want that business degree, or math, or engineering, or graphic design, or heck, even a degree in library sciences. I have yet to see a job description pleading for someone who can pen a novel.

One of my advisors warned about the post-MFA funk. I laughed at him. I said, "Why would there be a funk? I still am reading and writing. I am still in constant contact with my friends from Pacific. I still get to email you. All I'm missing now is the stress of deadlines."

But it's not the same. And he knew that. And while maybe not everyone goes through this, not everyone who graduates finds themselves adrift in a sea of indecision and lostness, I, despite my best intentions, find myself lost and without direction.

And somehow, this is okay.

I am redefining my life, and that's always okay. I will always be a writer, but that itself isn't what defines me. I am a mom. A wife. A child of God. This is what more defines me than anything else. Where writing fits in is maybe still left to be seen.

And while some might wonder if a writing degree then was worth the money, I still say yes. A resounding, reverberating, screaming yes. Because this two years was more than just writing. It fundamentally changed who I am, who I know I can be. It gave me experiences and friendships I could never have otherwise had. These things are priceless. 

So this week I will graduate. I will fly to Oregon, I will hug my friends. I will don the cap and gown, walk across the stage in heels I bought eight months ago just for this event. I will bend at the knees so they can put the hood over my head. I will get pictures of me in the trappings of graduation. I will toast with champagne. I will know that I most certainly will write in the future, but maybe not in the ways I thought I would. Or maybe in the ways I hoped. I will know that who I am is much more important than what I do, and this two years has helped make me who I am.