In spring of 2012, I re-enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Boston, the school I had dropped out of in 2007 and again in 2010. I was twenty-six, not quite divorced yet, and about eight months pregnant at the time. I remember I had to meet with the one of the staff members who ran my school’s orientation, so that I could talk him into letting me skip out on it. I just didn’t see myself dragging a newborn into the auditorium and running through a series of meet-and-greet exercises with teenage freshmen.
I told the staff member I planned to start classes in the fall. He took one look at my belly and asked me, “Are you sure about that?”
There’s an incredible pressure on women like the one I was when I first went back to school, but also a deafening chorus of voices, many of these the voices of authority figures, telling them to give up. Every encounter seems contrived to remind you of your failures. Guys in your writing workshops might use their stories to crack jokes about the “slutty” young moms on college campuses and even the professor might not get why this enrages you. Strangers might see you out with your kid and ask probing questions about whether or not “her father” or “your husband” will be coming to pick you up. They might say things like “Single moms can do anything!” by which they mean without my help, I hope.
Eventually you just want to prove folks wrong.
So I’m writing today to answer the question I was asked in 2012, and to tell you precisely how sure I am about this whole college thing. I’m so sure that I graduated in three years with dual concentrations in creative and professional writing and a 3.9 GPA. I’m so sure that I received honors for two theses—one in creative writing and one in composition and rhetoric—and won multiple scholarships for my writing from my school.
I am extremely sure about this. When I finally decided to take school seriously, I decided to take it seriously. Part of that is prolonged exposure to situations in which I couldn’t afford not to be sure. Part of that is just who I’ve always been: You point me in a direction and I will run that way as hard as I can. Sometimes I jump the gun with a premature submission or an ill-advised marriage, but what can I say? I muddle through.
Like the decision to go back to school, the decision to write was one that I made purposefully and finally, and then worked toward with maniacal energy. I was doing a lot of journalism-related schoolwork—helping out at the school paper, learning to edit copy in an independent study, applying for internships—and it felt natural to sign up for a fiction workshop during the summer right before my second year. After all, I wanted to write well. During this workshop I was hypercritical and obnoxious and wrote a piece that nobody liked. Then, I think in order to prove something, I took another workshop that fall. I was still hypercritical and obnoxious in the second workshop, but I did produce a better story.
Eventually, I realized that I liked writing and wasn’t bad at it (for a beginner). I learned to be a little nicer in workshops. I realized that I am not a journalist at all, because I hate interviewing people and would really rather be smoothing out copy. I learned, slowly and painfully, how to submit to journals without making a total fool of myself (that’s still a work in progress), and I learned which journals I should be submitting to. I signed up for an honors thesis in creative writing.
And I thought, “I wonder if anybody would let me do this in grad school.”
Of course, by the time I got to seriously considering myself a writer, not to mention wondering about grad school, I had little wiggle room. It was late spring of 2014, I was on track to graduate in the summer of 2015, and I figured I should start thinking about applications yesterday. I had a full course load and a toddler with whom I wanted to spend as much time as I could. Not only did I tutor within my own English department, but I also edited copy for DigBoston, the city’s only alternative weekly newspaper.
My boyfriend moved in with me around this time, and it was with him that I worked out a complicated chart of schools we would apply to in hopes of landing in the same location. I won’t keep you hanging with this: He and I did not get into the same place, but he did get into a PhD program nearby, and he is here to see me and my daughter every week. I feel certain that if he had not come into our lives, I would not have gone to graduate school at all. He always knew he wanted to be a career academic, and he made me understand that more education was a possibility, something I was allowed to ask for.
We applied with diligence, and we applied frantically. I can’t say, in retrospect, that we applied wisely. In both our cases, there were a few schools we thought of as safeties (not because these weren’t excellent schools, but because they weren’t excellent for us) and then realized, after they sent us acceptance letters, were just not a good fit. If you’re an applicant and you’re reading this, please don’t waste people’s time by applying to safety schools; only try to get into places that are right for you. Period.
We also both have schools we’re still devastated about saying no to, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. We both applied with materials we could have better prepared, and we’ve both had much more success in our publications since after we applied. We both could have benefitted from a gap year, time to think and really focus on our materials, someone to tell us not to spread ourselves so thin.
The single biggest help to me during this very stressful time was the the MFA Draft group on Facebook, where MFA veterans answered questions that my professors often could not. The most productive workshop I was a part of was the Draft Fiction Workshop, which I strongly believe anyone who wants a fiction MFA should join. My boyfriend, who spent a lot of time on Gradcafe, often remarked that he wished something like Draft existed for PhD applicants in his field.
Given that our applications were largely scattershot and guesswork, we were incredibly lucky to get into schools we love. And I mean that. I’ve only been here for about two and a half weeks, but so far I love Ohio State. Today I met up with a fellow incoming fiction MFA and we stopped by the library. The other day I went for a walk and got lost in a One Direction concert. Most important, my daughter is so thrilled with her new daycare that it’s hard to make her go home with me at pickup time. Life is happening.
My classes begin on Tuesday, and I’m not nervous at all. Not one iota. I wanted this more than I’ve wanted most things, and I’m so overwhelmingly glad it’s finally here.