at Grandma's
2014, Archives, June 2014, The MFA Years

J.R. Dawson Introduction (Stonecoast ’16)

I didn’t go to my senior prom.

Instead, I went to the after-party at the local YMCA. Somehow, around three in the morning, I got wrangled into a session with the tarot card reader the school had brought in for entertainment purposes (right between the hypnotist and the raffle drawing for QT gas cards). The guy was nice enough; he had a big beard and some weird little top hat. He said I reminded him of his daughter. I said he didn’t remind me of my father. And then he pulled the cards.

“You’re leaving for a creative venture,” he said. Okay, that was true. I was slated to leave for Chicago to get my BFA in playwriting at the end of the summer. “You’re going to go on an adventure. You will meet people who will help you and people who will say you’re doing it wrong. Well, you aren’t doing it wrong. So don’t listen to them. You’re doing it differently.”

While the cynic in me forgot all about that top-hatted fellow, the romantic in me has kept his words close to my heart throughout the past 10 years. I’d spent so much time wondering what the “right” way to do things was, how people would look up to me and admire my prowess in whatever it was I was doing … that I’d forgotten any self-confidence whatsoever.

You aren’t doing it wrong. Don’t listen to them. You’re doing it differently.

J.R. Dawnson as a young child hiding under a wooden table
Me, circa 1989, coming up with a new story at Grandma’s.

I started writing when I was four. No, I didn’t want to be famous. No, I didn’t want to capture the essence of mankind in a single swoop of my pen. Those ambitions came later, after a lot of Hemingway and Plath had been stuffed into my brain. At the age of four, all I wanted to do was make my life not boring. I lived in the middle of nowhere in a town that wished it was a city. I spent my days being shipped between my mom and dad at home, my teacher at my very fancy private school, and my grandma at her apartment. I was in no way interested in eating green beans or learning the different kinds of dinosaurs or even watching PBS. So I got my solace in Grandma’s bedroom, where I’d lock the door and act out all of the not-boring lives that came to mind.

It was here I made friends. It was here I showed Grandma who I really was. And soon, the two of us wrote all the stories down.

There was really no point to living if I couldn’t live with magic, possibilities, or, honestly, anything that wasn’t my preschool teacher shouting at me because I threw pudding at her reading cabinets.

When people called my magic silly, I called them Muggles.

It is through this magic I learned about the world and made sense of the difficult things in my life. I learned that sometimes good people do bad things and that it usually takes a good deal of bravery to face the things that make us grow up.

I kept writing because I wanted to give others that magic, just as Rowling and L’Engle and Applegate and Twain and Bradbury gave it to me.

But my dreams immediately skidded to a stop as I met other writers in the big city.

We’ve all been there, especially us young girls. We step off the plane, fresh faced from whatever WalMart-infested town we left, and we are dead sure that someone will sniff us out and realize we’re not cool enough or good enough or smart enough to make it. We’re not the real deal; we’re fakes and frauds.

So we try to hide behind words and voices that aren’t ours. We tell stories about older, more sophisticated and experienced people, because that’s what everyone else is doing. We talk pedantically about things we heard in a blurb on the TV as we rushed through the student center, and when some wonderfully Bohemian boy comes along to our writing group with his coifed hair and annotated copy of Infinite Jest, we fall for him because he legitimizes our pursuit when he says, in that gravelly, Khal Drogo voice, “You’re the real thing.”

It takes us a few years to realize that boy (and everyone else our age) is just as lost as we are.

But in the winter of 2008, I hadn’t figured that out yet. I wrote literary pieces, short stories, and short story cycles, and I wrote them like I wrote my essays on medieval literature; cross-legged in a chair at the library, a Diet Pepsi in my hand and classical music in my ears.

I didn’t lock myself up in rooms and pretend anymore. That was stupid. I now wore red Chucks and black glasses and carried my laptop in a button-covered tote with the words I read banned books on the side. I was legit. I would get into the best school possible, write a Pulitzer-winning novel about my struggles as a twenty-something, and win it all.

A tote that reads, "I read banned books."
My tote, circa 2008. You thought I was embellishing, didn’t you?

Enter my play project. A two-act full-length about the Bobby Kennedy assassination. I challenged myself to write an O’Neill-esque kitchen sink drama. Four characters. One apartment set. And two hours without changing scenes.

On opening night, the audience drew itself into the story of a poor girl on the South Side whose conservative father was desperately trying to raise her on his own. The family was strained even further by her older brother’s deployment to Vietnam. The girl reached out to a boy who was part of the Yippie movement, only to find disappointment and disillusionment.

You know, your typical ’60s play.

After the show and thunderous applause, everyone congratulated me on a job well done. I felt on top of the world … until a feedback session that Monday with my professor.

This professor was a man of few words and many faces. He had a special connection to my writing cohort, because he wasn’t a writing professor, but he volunteered his extra time to hold independent studies with all of us writing majors. He didn’t have to do that. We were grateful for this, because he had a critical eye. Whenever he loved a manuscript, you knew that manuscript was pure gold.

But we feared him for that same reason. If he hated your manuscript, he would only stop short of lighting it on fire in front of you and taping your eyelids open so you couldn’t look away as it withered to ash.

In other words, he was an honest man.

So when I entered his cramped office and saw him already chewing on his fountain drink’s straw in disgust, I knew that thunderous applause two days ago meant nothing.

“I just …” He stopped, making one of those faces he made. The one where it looked like he was refusing the grossest looking pickle on a plate in front of him. “I just … don’t get it.”

“Well, she lives in 1968—”

“No, no no, ugh, I get the play.” He flung his hand at me, as if batting away my stupidity. “I just don’t get it. You wrote a kitchen sink drama, but what …. what what what was with the brother returning in her dreams?”

We students always joked behind his back that he had a what-o-meter: the more whats uttered, the more hatred he had for your pile of filth.

I’d gotten four.

“Yes,” I said. “I used existential scenes to show their … relationship. She locks herself in her room and … and puts up a curtain in her room and pretends it leads to wherever he is. So … so she imagines these scenes with an imaginary brother in imaginary places … um, Professor?”

He was just staring at me, his mouth open as if he was about to let out a “yeeeeesh,” but he said nothing. He just shook his head.

“If I just saw this play, with those dream sequences pulled,” he finally managed, “I would think you’re just another run-of-the-mill dunce.”

I had nothing to say to that.

“Why … why why why did you write a play that you should not have written?” he said. “Because I know you can write. You are a brilliant writer, actually. Those existential scenes, where you give yourself over to dreams, you shine. I haven’t seen anything that honest before. And therein lies your voice. But good lord, the rest of it. Why would you put yourself through that? Why would you put me through that?”

“I wanted to write a play,” I said.

“But not your play,” he said. “You do what you do. Don’t try to write someone else’s play.”

This seemed like such a crazy notion, because the walls fortifying my “genre” voice had gotten so thick and tall. To say I enjoyed my time in that closet would not be accurate, but I had grown to accept it.

Now a professor—a revered professor—had told me to never accept it. Never settle for less than who I was.

So out poured apocalyptic worlds, refugees at the end of times, soldier fathers reunited with peasant daughters, assassin brothers hired to kill emperor brothers, cyborg kings, rocketships on the last day of Earth, android grandmothers taking the place of dementia-riddled corpses, and time-traveling lovers.

Bradbury returned to my life, greeting me with open arms as I bought Martian Chronicles as a graduation present to myself. “It’s going to be okay,” he seemed to say to me through his stories. “I was different, too.”

Different. But not wrong.

College bedroom wall with posters and character drawings
My college bedroom wall, circa 2010. Character drawings slowly enveloping my big-girl posters.

Time passed. Years, actually. And I went back and forth about MFA creative writing programs. I always felt on the outskirts, a dirty bastard child of genre.

“If you just pretend like you write literary, then you can get in and write whatever you want,” one friend told me.

But my professor’s words stuck like an annoying fly trap on my brain. You do what you do.

That’s when my fiancé found the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA in popular fiction.

The Stonecoast MFA prides itself on taking us weird magic folk under its wing and teaching us how to cultivate our own individual voices. They wanted me to write steampunk, and they cited my time-traveling lovers as the reason for my acceptance to the program.

They are Hogwarts incarnate.

So this summer, I go where I belong. I’ve already met so many people in my new cohort who have the same funky loves and ideas and heroes that I do. My professors are some of the coolest people out there. And everyone is so friggin’ nice.

I haven’t seen my old professor since he retired. I have no idea where he is, and he probably would roll his eyes and give a “what … ugh, what?” if he knew he saved my life. (“Good God, woman, write it on a Hallmark card and at least be paid for your sentimental slush.”) But he was an honest man, and that made him the best sort of teacher.

While I still enjoy literary fiction (especially historical fiction), and I’ve exercised my hand to write stronger more compelling literary stories, I now have the freedom to leave the kitchen sink when I feel like pulling back that magical curtain in my bedroom. I have the freedom to be different.

Not wrong. Just different.

My current writing room, 2014--a chair with a Harry Potter throw blanket on it, a laptop on a desk, and a keyboard are in the room.
My current writing room, 2014.

Disclaimer: These are my memories as I recall them. One thing about writing the past, you’re never going to remember every word verbatim. This is the best I could do.