I could tell you this story started two years ago, but that wouldn’t be true. This story started with a dream. When I was a junior in college, I decided I wanted to be a writer and get my MFA in poetry. I researched schools and narrowed down my choices. But senior year rolled around and my professors kept saying get some “real-world” experience before going to graduate school.
I listened to those professors. And that’s not a bad part of the story: It was good advice. But the real world didn’t want me and my English bachelor’s degree, so when I couldn’t find work I applied last minute for a master’s program in journalism. A practical degree. And I slugged through that first year of the program—almost quitting halfway through, not because I couldn’t do the classes but because I didn’t want to, and not because they were bad classes but because they weren’t poetry.
But I did finish that degree in journalism. Still, that’s not the end of the story, for the story wasn’t about getting my master’s in journalism, it was about that MFA in poetry—wasn’t it?—a degree which seemed to be shrinking away in the distance as the years passed. And the story of the MFA in poetry could have so easily ended there because that master’s degree in journalism did help me land writing jobs, and I did finally get “real-world” experience just like those professors I loved had told me to do, and the real world swept me into it and away from that MFA in poetry. And my professors were right. The “real world” raised me, helped me grow up, gave me things to write about: bad bosses and good bosses and jobs that shoved me into being stronger and taught me to set boundaries and made me a better public speaker and showed me how to command a room of 150 people and bring story into speeches and story into publications and story into interviews with students on the brink of new chapters in their lives. In the real world I got into bad relationships and good relationships and car accidents and arguments, and I left my hometown and returned and left again and then left my state for the South, and I learned what sweet tea was and that barbecue always meant pork, never chicken, and I fell in love and out of love and back in love until we lost each other, and I memorized two-lane roads with names like Chicken Bridge and Elsa Jane Lane, and I learned to contra dance and twirl on my linoleum kitchen floor, and I figured out how to buy bargain dinners and avoid the heaviest foods—beets and chick peas and potatoes—at the Whole Foods weigh-your-own salad bar, and I learned how to eat out alone and how to make damn good deviled eggs and I learned to like sushi and camping in the cold and to like bold colors—greens, oranges and yellows—and I learned how to make amends and how to know when it’s over and how to ask for what I needed and how to not regret. And all along the way, I was giving up that MFA in poetry, not because I didn’t want it or because I was not writing poems (because I was) but because I reasoned the reality was that I wouldn’t ever do it. I was not 22 anymore and that sort of dream seemed too lofty for the real world—hadn’t I learned that, too?—and anyway, I was living and learning and that’s what mattered and maybe I would have learned the same things had I gotten that MFA in poetry to begin with, but I was not 22 anymore and all the choices I had made since then had been right and wrong and I couldn’t tell the difference until later so I kept moving on and on and on.
And then one day, on a street not far from home, the one I loved then and still do asked me: why not get that MFA? And a window opened in the world that I had long ago boarded up, and the story of the MFA in poetry shone again, and I applied to programs and got accepted, and the light swelled through that window until there was no shadow left. That was two years ago, and in between then and now I learned about point of view, reflective voice, how to plant and return and make a character come alive, and I lost parts of myself but gained years, and I cried too much and ate too much chocolate, but I also made new friends, and I learned to follow people I did not know but came to know—people who awoke on my pages and who lied and broke up and got promotions and drank too much and begged forgiveness, and they were nothing like me but were always me because they came from the deepest part of me to surprise me, change me, challenge me. And then the two years passed, and there I was, almost done, almost with my degree, and it wasn’t an MFA in poetry but an MFA in nonfiction and fiction, but this story was not about an MFA in poetry anyway—I just thought it was, and it took me a long time to see that it never was.
I am telling you this story didn’t start two years ago, but last night when I got my diploma it felt like an end, and it was and it was not, and that’s the thing about stories: you never know where they will take you and who you might become, but you keep on writing and you learn to trust, and you keep moving on and on and on.