I begin graduate school today.
The last time I was in graduate school was 30 years ago.
I finished that first degree in my 30th year. I will complete a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in my 60th.
The first degree propelled me to a rewarding career in the breathless, changeable world of college admission. It was a career I was lucky enough to massage to meet the needs of the young me, then the family life me, then the elder-care me, and now, the advanced, middle-aged, “can I get in 9 holes this morning?” me.
That first Master’s degree served me well.
The next will ease me toward something more likely to feed my soul.
Writing became a serious pursuit for me five years ago when I began a blog reflecting on the challenges of middle-age. Part art, part catharsis, my website became a vessel for musings on divorce, elder-care, and the subsequent journey’s I took with loved ones as they left this world. Heartbreak, both romantic and born of grief, became fodder for figuring. I pulled at it all like taffy, with imagery, metaphor, and good old-fashioned narrative. I also wrote of joy and the things that sustain and help me better understand who I am.
Encouragement from readers, not just kind friends, led me to seek out other writers, submit essays for publication, and begin a memoir. I now have mentors, colleagues, published pieces, and the first draft of a memoir. I consider myself a writer.
While writing, I continued to ferry high school seniors through the college application process. I long ago tired of the world of college admission, and its overwrought, misplaced importance. With the perspective of age, I know too well that college selection is not nearly the most important decision these kids will make in their lifetime. Weightier choices will intervene as the gravity of adulthood bears down. But, in this millennium, when teenagers are in the teeth of it, they believe that where they are accepted at college will define them for a lifetime. The process wrings them out, then facebook posts from well-meaning parents announcing acceptances roll in, and before we know it a college bumper sticker on an SUV becomes the measure of the child. No wonder they seem exhausted. It wears me out, too.
However, I never weary when I work with students on the college essay. In no more than 650 words, they are expected to say something meaningful about themselves. At 17, most of them have no idea what it is that makes them who they are. When written honestly, the college essay is as valuable to a student’s self-revelation as it is to the cynical university admission officer who judges it.
And I am good at it. Through my writing journey, I have become effective at helping students loosen the confines of convention that tend to make their writing stilted and dull. I try to lead them to places where they might find unexpected epiphanies that help them understand who they are becoming.
Where these students get into college is now only vaguely interesting to me.
How they write about themselves and what they learn from that process is what brings me professional joy.
And so, it might be easy to go on doing what I do: a little tennis, a bit of golf, and College Counseling on my schedule. It seemed delightfully palatable to me as I barrel toward my 60th year.
And then, I met a young man in a bar.
It’s not every day that a 56-year-old woman engages a young man in a bar, especially a young man young enough to be her son. But so, it was.
Someone said he was a writer. Someone told him the same of me, “You’re a writer?”
“Well,” I demurred, “I want to be a writer, and I write, but I’m not sure I would call myself a writer?”
The young man chuckled in self-awareness, letting me know that he too knew the weight of the word writer when he said, “If you write? You are a writer.”
And we met again, and again, at the same place, same time and I came to know the boy writer. Not every week, but often enough, I would find myself and my young friend engaged in the corner of the bar, speaking of unreliable narrators, protagonists, writers voice, and story grids. He writes fantasy while I write creative non-fiction. None of that mattered. Storytelling is storytelling.
Throughout the past two years, I’ve enjoyed a front-row seat to his development. I watched him mature with the speed only a twenty-something can muster as they begin to understand their purpose. Soon our conversations focused on the specifics of the graduate program he was pursuing. Last spring, he invited me to an end of semester reading of undergraduate personal essays. I arrived at the local university, found the conference room, sat on the edge of a window sill, and spotted my young writer friend across the room. He casually nodded hello.
One after another, fifteen or so college seniors shared their writing. Some of them self-possessed, others nervous. Some pieces moved me, others made me laugh aloud, and of course, some students didn’t quite reach the standard. They were all remarkably brave.
As I left the campus, I realized it was time to go back to school.
I will dive deep for the next four semesters. I will immerse myself in the craft with two goals in mind: finishing my book and positioning myself to teach undergraduate writing as my final career. The gift of writing came late to me. I don’t want it to arrive late to a generation that seems to need it more than ever. For them, I don’t want writing to be a hoop they have to jump through to adhere a bumper sticker that it isn’t nearly as important as this world seems to think it is.
Today, the old me begins a new chapter.