The chronic bad dreams started when I was 17. They continued for the next seven years all the way to last night, where I had a dream that two of my family members died on the Fourth of July. During my years as an undergrad, I had much of what my father calls “exam dreams”—that is, the genre of dreams where you suddenly are forced to take a huge, future-determining examination you haven’t studied for (and maybe you’re naked, too, just to spice things up). During my volunteer year at a soup kitchen, some mornings I would wake up with bad dreams blending with the calling of the homeless three floors beneath my window, which had me wondering what was actually real and what was a dream.
And while working and traveling through Europe, whether sleeping on some stranger’s floor, in a hostel, or in my tiny caravan, I would get complaints that I kept talking in my sleep. The dreams were just as bad as ever, and they ranged from me bleeding out pounds and pounds of blood; a family pet getting slaughtered by a wolverine; a dog attacking me while I was driving; not being able to help someone in peril; an ex-boyfriend deciding we should get back together, only to change his mind and dump me moments later. The dreams were hard to wake up from—there was always a moment where I’d think, trying to slow my heartbeat, “Okay, it was only a dream,” but the feelings that the dreams triggered were entirely real, and those were much harder to talk away.
These bad dreams hit with an alarming frequency during my MFA application season. This past fall, after returning from Europe, I decided that it was high time to apply to grad school writing programs. Whilst abroad, I had dramatically decided that I had no idea where my life was headed, and just as dramatically, I was certain that this was horrible. It is terrifying to look out at the horizon of your life and see absolutely nothing but some vague, impossible hope. A Masters in Creative Writing had been the ultimate pipe dream since I’d first heard about fully funded programs, but it was another matter entirely to take the jump to pursue it before another year went by.
Just for background information, I’ll tell you that I postponed applying to schools until I came home from Europe; I started the application roller coaster ride in December. As a consequence, I promptly decided not to apply to any schools whose application deadline was December 15th, which was roughly half of them. Honestly, this was not the most prudent way to decide my future. In the heat of my time crunch, I did not care at all. I had less than a month to deal with my culture shock, solidify my school list (and research, research, research), iron out my portfolio, secure three letters of recommendation, write many statements of purpose, and make many arguments of why I merited funding.
The end of December and the first two weeks of January were a blur for me. I look back and remember agonizing over my writing sample. I would think, my goodness, I thought these poems were good? How would anyone ever accept me based on these works?! One day, for a couple of hours, I feverishly tried to write new poetry. This stress-poetry was probably some of the worst poetry I have ever produced. I decided the stuff I had would have to work, even though I’d begun questioning if I had any knack for the craft of writing at all.
I drove down to my alma mater, the University of Virginia, to secure some life advice from one of my beloved former professors, poet Gregory Orr. My notes for the meeting, scrawled on a jagged piece of notebook paper, just said: “ask for life advice; try not to cry” (if you were wondering, I only met half of my goals that afternoon—December was a tough month). After handing me some brown, recycled paper napkins, Greg told me I was terrific and that he’d help in any way he could. I felt a small seed of hope.
Heartened by this success, and by the promise of a letter of recommendation from him, poet Rita Dove, and all around rockstar professor Jeb Livingood, I sat down to write my Statement of Purpose, all with my eye on the approaching deadlines—they were in less than two weeks.
I hate the Statement of Purpose. If you’ve ever tried to write about yourself, you know that it is an extremely difficult task. I realized this important fact: there’s no way you can sell yourself as a writer with an essay that sucks. I brooded over every word, certain that a poorly structured sentence would be my ruin. Finally, after hours and hours of editing, writing, and radio-listening (and trying to win radio contests), I took my meticulously groomed Statement of Purpose and added it to my applications.
During this application frenzy, my dreams were worse than ever—disasters, exam dreams, even dreams where I’d lose my teeth or hands. Graham Greene once wrote, “When we are not sure, we are alive.” If this is true, I was never more alive than MFA application season. The low acceptance rates and the subjectivity of my entire genre combined hopelessness, fear, and my falling self-confidence. Still, I applied anyway, because it was my dream, and I looked at the miniscule acceptance rates and hoped I’d be one of the lucky ones. I just wasn’t so sure.
I applied to seven schools with a variety of programs. From the ones I was accepted into (each acceptance truly shocked me), I chose Columbia College Chicago, a glitzy art school in downtown Chicago, because of its exciting program and the offer of a scholarship. I found it terribly exciting to enroll at an art school that looks at writing from a creation standpoint, rather than from the classic English department standpoint. It is terribly exciting to regard poetry as an art form—and thus regard myself as an artist—rather than just another esoteric chunk of academia.
Anyway, after I committed to Columbia College Chicago, I had the first good dream I can recall in recent memory. In the dream, I was a professional skier in some exotic locale; everyone back home was excited about it—they would say to each other enviously, “My gosh, look at Gillian! She is really living her dream.” On the ski slopes, the snow was so bright, reflecting the sun, and I could see snow-sprays up against the white-covered trees. What I remember most about the dream was my own happiness. When I woke up, I couldn’t believe I’d had such a pleasant dream.
But when I woke up, I knew that the dream—in which I was living out my dream—was a final, subconscious burst of excitement about me living my life, moving halfway across the country and writing for two idyllic scholarship years. And I thought to my subconscious, hey, nice metaphor.
So that’s me, Gillian. Nice to meet you all.