The Graduate

My introduction to the world of higher education comes from my Neal family. Two of my mother’s sisters have their Masters and my grandmother’s fourth husband, Phil, possessed at PhD in English. Education was a familiar and much talked about topic among my parents and my extended family. I have a few cousins who were quite a bit older and during the summer cocktail hour, the educational progress of my relatives was discussed between bites of Triscuits and sips of white wine. Would Eric get into medical school at University of Michigan? Or would he go somewhere else in the state? Would my cousin Sarah a legacy to Albion, attend the school of her mother, aunts, and grandmother? I would pick up the thread of the adult friendly conversation when my Aunt Deb shared highlights from her most recent trip to Europe with her art students. On my mother’s side of the family, education was king.

I’m pleased to share that I’ve not only wrangled a new fabulous job but that I’ve also been accepted to graduate school for writing. Come August I’ll take ten days off of work and head west to begin my residency at Pacific Lutheran University for their Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Yet another dream come true for this pathetic English major…

Ever since I realized that I would make my life and education wrapped tightly around the world of English and writing, I knew that I’d want to continue my education and obtain my Masters. It wasn’t just the jagged peaks of Montana that drew me here; I also wanted to gain state residency to attend the University of Montana for their superb graduate program. I’ve put off grad school for quite a long time, perhaps even expiring on the advice that my favorite writer, Pam Houston, bestowed upon me during my final semester at DePauw when she paid the charming Midwest campus a visit: “Don’t go to grad school right away. What do you have to write about? Frat parties? Live a bit. And no real jobs.”

Well, Pam, if you are curious I’ve been all too successful in heeding your sage advice. I’ve lived a bit, certainly worked no real jobs during my tenure in Montana, and haven’t actually wrote about one single frat party. But boy I have penned a few tales about fly fishing guides…

Much like taking my job with the symphony, I felt it was high time that I finally applied to graduate school. The glamour of the University of Montana’s acclaimed MFA program sort of lost its hook when I realized that I had my life, my love with Cole, here in Whitefish. After my stint at DePauw, I’ve come to realize that while it is admirable, worthy, and challenging to seek out a top school it doesn’t guarantee success or happiness. I learned about Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington from a friend and fellow writer. Matt’s a talented woodsy man and father of two. He also taught English at the local high school. He’s obsessed with writing. He shared that the program at PLU offered a low-residency program designed for adults who juggle kids, work, and life with writing and the pursuit with higher education. Matt told me about the stunning line-up of the faculty and their commitment to cultivate a writer for life. This is a program that would be most honored to have one of their students’ work published in the New Yorker but care most that after three years, their graduates will have further enabled their writing habit and will still be writing well into their years. Matt said he could only tell me so much and instructed me to call the program director, Stan Rubin.

Mr. Rubin, director of the graduate program in writing, actually returned my call. I was walking with Cole through the streets of Whitefish on a busy night at the Farmer’s Market. It was a mild July evening. I spent an hour on the phone with Stan. I had to cut him off or else Cole would abandon me and my sack of produce on the sidewalk. We talked about writing, about stories and about what it takes to actually take the next step. Stan lectured on the type of people, the type of writers, all 17 of them that he granted permission to enter his individualized writing program. He was very particular about what kind of a person he wanted to be a part of his large writerly experiment where his students attend a highly intense 10-day workshop session with their classmates and professors and then return home to work the rest of the year with a faculty mentor and chart their course in writing. He handpicks the students and then he handpicks the student with their mentor. An hour on the phone is not nearly enough with this man.

I was shaking after I hung up the phone with Stan. Cole gave me a look and said I just had to apply. I sighed. I promised I’d apply. In September I signed up for a non-credit short story writing class at the local community college to spur me write and polish stories for my application. I had a November 30th deadline and I need to have 40 pages of prose for my portfolio. In the years since DePauw, I’ve hardly written or even completed a short story. While I’d taken great pride in my recent entry into the world of freelance and blog work, I realized that my compression for stories in under 1,500 words would not boost my portfolio to PLU. I hoped the class would work.

It did and like I always do, I’d loved participating in a writing class. For being non-credit, it was a difficult and demanding class. We actually did literary analysis of short stories and typically went over our allotted class time in spirited discussion. I was so happy.

Until I had to submit a short story. Being the egotistical writer and one who had occupied an arena where my stories where well received from workshops at DePauw to good comments  from my editors at local magazines, I thought I’d be the best writer in the class, no matter how little effort I put into the story. Well, this time, slapping together a story just minutes before deadline didn’t payoff for me. I was not the best writer in the class. And frankly, my pathetic and sickly draft was terrible. I should have paid more respect to my craft and to my fellow students.

The comments, while respectful, were honest. The story was jarring, unsettled and unspecific. Was there a plot? It was just a shell. It was not in any way, a story that would receive high marks in my class nor would it be remotely acceptable to submit in my portfolio to PLU. Defeated and dejected (deservedly so but my ego was in the way) I decided that I wasn’t a good writer and to scrap the entire dream of attending grad school. Cole thought I was pathetic and childish.  And I was.

I let October expire without working on my hollow shell of a story. I looked at my November 30th deadline and ignored it. Just after Halloween, Matt shot me an email asking how my portfolio was progressing. I told him that I wrote a short story and that it didn’t have a plot and that it was terrible and that I didn’t really want to go to school with Stan. In short, I wrote, I was a failure. Matt fired back: “Fuck failure. And fuck plot. You can write a story.”

Some have said that writing is a lonely vocation. And most times it is. It is just you, your soul and your demons. But what I tend to forget in my selfish pride is that I am not alone as a writer. I have friends, allies and even enemies. They tell me that I have to ignore failure, ignore plot lines, and ignore my Evil Inner Voice that tells me that I have no business clacking away at a keyboard making sense of mountains and men.

With many thanks to all the characters in my own story, from my aunts and Phil Pittman, to Barbara Bean and Lili Wright at DePauw, to the writers I’ve admired like Pam Houston and Jim Harrison, to my friends and lovers who begged me to just write one more page: know that I have listened and that I have wrote. And come August, I’ll be on the Pacific Ocean with Stan Rubin and a whole slew of incredibly gifted writers and professors.


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