2015, Archives, October 2015, The MFA Years

Two months into a long way to go

A long way to go… CC: tommy@chau

The first month (or two) I spent at Mizzou, I was a crazy person. My life seemed like a whirlwind of intimidations. I was a part of a cohort of people who had never ending CVs—people who have spent the last years getting their MAs or MFAs, teaching, writing, publishing, while I’ve spent the last few years learning how property passes to one’s survivors at the time of death in the State of Florida. My apartment still, even now, lacks major furniture and I just bought a bookcase (of which I proudly negotiated the final price down $10 without even referencing a student discount, what!) a week ago. My pieces in workshop aren’t what I want them to be, I’m not writing how often I would like and I haven’t begun any books outside of my seminar texts.

I guess I had this idea that once I got to grad school, I would somehow turn into a disciplined, self-willed woman who can speed read and write flawlessly before coffee; I thought I would be that girl who’s always on point—in a quirky way with fantastic accessories. Reality, on the other hand, shows me as the older-than-college age woman in the blue backpack sprinting across campus, sandals smacking, breathlessly interviewing students for my copywriting job and stumbling into the wrong group exercise classes. I stay up late and wake up early and still the pieces I’ve brought to workshop don’t sound quite right, like I’m sitting on the edge of the ass indent in an old sofa. I know what my voice is supposed to feel like, but right now it just…doesn’t fit.

The difference between now and two months ago is that somehow, in some moment that I didn’t recognize or acknowledge, I became totally fine with that. Because it all means I’m working. It means that I am struggling—beautifully.

I realized that I had to work with my faults rather than pretending that somehow they’d change on their own. I bought one of those gigantic white-board calendars and decided to retire my old French press for a programmable coffee maker that has the carafe all brewed when my alarm buzzes. I gave myself a schedule and got up earlier. I kept a notebook with quotes of my day and I spoke up in class. I sat at a bar alone and forced myself to stay through at least one beer, just to enjoy the bar and the noise. In short, I somehow realized that my time here would train and prepare me for what I alone wanted to do, but it wouldn’t change my ways, my flaws, my worries.

Realizing that graduate school is training, rather than validation moved huge mental mountains for me. Training implies that we each admit that we have more to learn whereas validation means that somehow we still have something to prove. I realized that these next two years and the books I read and the classes I take and the papers I write are not independent tasks to accomplish but are rather different ways to approach what I want to do. And as far as style, well, my professors—some with bright red Ray Bans and others with short sleeve button ups, some with their higher tolerances of silence and others with jokes—have shown me that as far as style, we’re on our own.

So, as far as advice, I’m not sure I have much. I’m only two months into a long way to go. But I do have two pieces of clarity that I can share and I’ve included them here. Do with them what you will:

1. Get a watch

It’s my best advice thus far. I realize we live in the digital age and Siri could count the seconds out loud if you asked, but using your phone for time is dangerous. Those little bricks of technology encapsulate our entire digital identity and even when you’re being disciplined and studious, diverting your glances from its screen, that phone is still interacting with the outside world, receiving text messages, bank notifications, mass emailed coupon newsletters (heyyo!), work assignments from bosses. Every time I’ve checked my phone for time, I’ve found myself sucked into spending a good ten to thirty minutes on it (that is grossly underreported), responding and updating, “just taking a break,” adding to my to do list. I’ve found I can eliminate all of this by getting a watch, turning my phone on silent, zipping it away in my backpack and hunkering down with my books.

…and 2. Be kind to yourself.

This advice is from my mother. She says this to me when I start talking very fast about how I am over tired but my reading isn’t done, the dishes aren’t washed, my writing should be better. (It should always be better!) “Be kind to yourself,” she tells me in those moments. Go for a walk. Watch a movie. Make a really delicious sandwich. Then return. But be kind to yourself.

So when the weather cools, sit outside for a few minutes and breathe. Harness your own style and make life easier on yourself rather than running your head into a wall because you’re not better, yet. Know this is training and use it for all you can, tailor it all you can, prepare yourself as well as you can. And also, get that watch. Analog works for me but the calculator ones seem pretty cool, too.

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