Sometimes my blogs and my writings have been said to be too personal. I learned a long time ago that no matter how personal something seems to be, as a writer, that still isn’t the core of you. It’s just another layer you have chosen to show others. It might actually be a layer or three you have put between yourself and the audience. They may look at it and see absolutely nothing that is you.
Today, I want to share a story about achievement. How to measure it. What it means.
Four years ago, I started a new journey in my life. It might sound cliched, but I had decided to take the necessary steps to end what could be simplified into an “unhealthy relationship.” I had tried for fifteen years of marriage to make things work. I had compromised nearly everything I was, sacrificed my friends and extended family, and endured what I would consider a hell on earth. I was lucky enough to get out of it with the help of my family and very supportive friends.
After leaving, it took a year for the divorce to be finalized. We had nothing except exactly what we had during the marriage, which was constant conflict and chaos. Only now it was sublimated into a new battlefield: the courtroom. When the divorce was done, I decided to set my course to a new horizon.
As an employee of my day job, I can take up to 9 credit hours per year of Graduate level courses; I just have to pay for the books. So I applied for and was accepted to the English MA program. I started my first course. It is hard for me to admit what happened next. In many ways, it resonates with a lot of my regrets, but in other ways, I have gained from it as well.
As a kid, school came easily for me. I was always on the Honor Roll, and struggled briefly in High School, but mostly because of hormones, depression, and some teenaged angst and rebellion. I excelled at academics, such as band and knowledge bowl, but quit track. I didn’t play sports. My friends and I were outcasts who used to fight with swords in the park in the middle of the night. We were often considered “at risk.” I graduated 3rd in my class and got almost no scholarship money.
I did about the same in college, never really having a hand on the tiller of my own life. I picked the college I went to because it was close to a girl I was dating, and just far enough from my parents to not warrant visits from them every weekend. The tuition was also affordable–unlike the California colleges that offered me the moon and the stars for a liberal arts program. I picked English as a major because it required the fewest credit hours for graduation. I didn’t really know what else to do. At the time, all that mattered was getting a BA and the rest of the world was open to you, or so I thought. I went through my classes, did fairly well, A’s and B’s. I discovered beer during my senior year and was out at least three nights a week. I nearly failed two of my courses because I never bothered to show up. I was burning out. I no longer cared about college or grades. I had broken up with the girl I had been seeing. My friends had all shifted to other social circles, and I found myself living alone and depressed. My goal of being a self-taught artist had shifted to being a self-taught author. Mostly because the only art class I took during my college experience told me how much I sucked.
But writing…writing was something I was good at. Or at the very least, something I loved working at being better at. (Yes, I did just end two sentences with prepositions).
Fast forward to a newly divorced single dad 17 years later.
I decided to take advantage of the Master’s program. (Btw, going back to grad school is another divorce cliche). At the pace I could afford, I could finish my degree in about 4 years. The first course taught me a lot about myself. It was “Literary Theory and Criticism.” Though the other students in the class seemed to think my answers were brilliant and thought-provoking, my professor usually just eyed me with contempt or would flat out tell me I was wrong.
Taking this class had two effects. First, I was reminded of all the bullshit, Marxist inculcation that I had slogged through during my undergrad years, which usually lost the coin toss to closing down the Smiling Moose on a weeknight. And second, I realized that maybe the time had passed me by to go through a program like this. I am a father of three, I had worked in the private sector, and then academia, and I had just finished the most grueling and stressful challenge of my entire life. I was befuddled by the assignments and even the way to post my work on “Blackboard.” There was so much reading. Then the hours of lecture each week. After half a semester, I decided this wasn’t for me.
You know those dreams you used to have of being late for class in High School, or you don’t have any pants, or maybe it’s a college dream where you forgot to attend for an entire semester and OOPS! it’s now the final exam and you need to take it? Those dreams come back when you are a non-traditional student in an Master’s program.
The only thing that kept me hanging on was the words of a dear friend, who said, “An education is something no one can ever take away from you.” This is true. I felt like I had let them down. Let myself down.
Years later, that sentiment was slammed home by a psychologist, who said to me, “You have a high IQ, you are a smart man. Why is it you aren’t doing better than being a guy with a BA who works as an administrative assistant?”
To this day, those words hit me in the chest. Considering what I have lived through, and how far I have come, those words are an unfair value judgement on my life. Summed up nice and neat for someone who didn’t really know me. They weren’t a wake up call. They weighed down on me like cinder-blocks tied around my ankles just before I was tossed into a lake. I was in my 40s and compared to where I should be, I wasn’t up to snuff. I was a failure. My ex-wife was right all along. I was a loser! Maybe I should have stayed in the Master’s program. I wasn’t capable of following through with anything, just like my high school track coach warned. “You’re a quitter, Harris!”
Feeling like that, wondering why I couldn’t continue through a program most twenty-year-olds sleepwalk through, it hurt and it was frustrating. Something had blocked me to where I would have done almost anything other than sitting through another minute of that class. But my value as a person who lives in their head and works with words, was assaulted by this.
Worst yet, the dark corner of my mind told me, “You are a fraud.”
Grad school isn’t for everyone. I am at peace with that notion. I am at peace with knowing too that my day job doesn’t define me as a man. It’s something I do to pay the rent. It doesn’t make me any less of a person, or less of an intellectual to realize my own limits. It wasn’t for me. I learned that. Some people go through an entire PhD. program before they come to that realization. I figured it out five weeks in.
When I write, whether it is paid blogs, journal entries, chapters in my books, poems, etc. I feel a sense of fulfillment that graduating from college never gave me. Constructing plots and filling worlds of my own creation with characters beats anything I could have written about the criticism of Altrusser or Barth or Marx. What I did get from college was the practice of typing. A few profs helped me with critical thinking as well, but that is either something your brain eats like candy or it doesn’t. Mostly it was just the typing.
Two out of four years of my degree could have been accomplished by reading “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.
I don’t know exactly why I didn’t want to continue on with grad school. Sometimes I wonder how things would have been had I stuck it out. But to find peace in this, I needed to come to terms with the fact that I had made a decision. I hadn’t just gone along with what I was supposed to do, as I had nearly my entire life. I was protagging. I was calling the shots and making my own decisions.
That also had value.
Maybe if I had stayed, I would have been a bigger fraud. Just like with my BA, I would have just been going through the motions and feeling disappointment when my degree didn’t open doors for me automatically. Like many of us foolishly believe (myself included).
At the end of the day, you can feel depressed even if your life is “on track” on all accounts. I recently watched a video that inspired this post. It showed me that you can be doing what you are supposed to do and on the outside it can look like you have the world on a string. If it doesn’t bring you joy, for some of us, those demons of depression can gnaw away at us.
I know now that getting an MA wasn’t going to solve my problems. It wasn’t going to give me joy. Following my dreams will.