I wish I was a better student and peer when I was in graduate school. I had an exceptional opportunity at the University of Alabama. I had free tuition and a monthly stipend. My professors in the creative writing program were kind. I finally had the chance to write and focus on the love of my life. It was a wonderful opportunity that I almost sabotaged.
Call it bad habits, depression or ADHD. Call it all of that. The bottom line was that I couldn’t allow myself to be happy and content doing what I could only dream of before. I was the first person in my family or social circle to pursue an MFA and I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. My professors tried to help me, but they assumed I knew more than I did.
Here are some of the things I didn’t know (from what I can remember):
1) Spending time with your classmates outside of class is just as important as being present with them in class. The relationships developed with them are important because they could possibly be life-long editors and readers of your work and vice versa. (I met classmates I still love and communicate with, but I didn’t give of myself the way I was expected to.)
2) You pursue an MFA with the idea of a collection of some sort already brewing in your head. You write your work in themes that could possibly contribute to your first book. (I wrote poems of all topics, styles, etc., not realizing I should have been working towards a thesis.)
3) Showing up on time and being prepared are of the utmost importance.
4) Every “little thing” matters.
And so, suffice it to say, the hardest professional lessons I ever learned I learned in grad school. I was the only black woman in my program. I couldn’t hide or stay under the radar. I walked around not seeing myself and I thought others couldn’t either.
I’m thankful for the patience of my professors, particularly Joel Brouwer, for standing back and watching me grow. He had a quiet manner—in all things, really. His comments on my poetry were sparse and abstract, forcing me to stretch and grow as opposed to giving me direct guidance. It made me feel like I could be flexible with my work and with who I was–that there was room for me.
Here’s one story that still sticks out in my memory: One day I came to Joel’s office crying. I mean, ugly crying. I was taking a course in the English department with a professor known to be hard-nosed. One day he kept me after class to talk. He was older, tenured and had written a ton of books. He opened a text book and asked me a question. In my brain, language—words, are flexible and come in categories. I often hear words and immediately see their homophones, or I am sent off thinking about how words compare to one another while someone is talking. The harder I try to focus, the worse this all gets. If I am tense or anxious it’s terrible. And I’m sure that day this was exactly what happened. I didn’t know what to call it then. The professor pointed to a sentence in the text and asked, “What do you call this?” I was already tense and anxious and I couldn’t answer him. I tried to, and he “clarified,” his question by saying, “no this,” and still pointing to the words. I couldn’t answer him. He was frustrated. He said I would have to withdraw. There was no way I was prepared to write the paper required for his class. I panicked. I could feel the lump throb in my throat. I needed his class (it was a requirement to graduate) and he had never seen my writing! There was only one paper for the course and before I’d written it, he had told me I couldn’t write it. He made a snap decision about me that day founded on ideas that may have been partially true. The part that was true: I didn’t have a degree in English. I read voraciously on my own, but I hadn’t taken courses that required the level of academic writing he expected. The part that wasn’t: he had assumed, probably because of my background as a poet, my appearance and my lack of access to “his language,” that I wasn’t capable of academic writing. This experience cut deeply. That day when I burst into Joel’s office, he said, “What’s wrong, kiddo?” His arms opened immediately and I sobbed. He talked to me a long time that day, and again, I don’t remember what all he said, but how he made me feel. He made me feel I had value at a time when I didn’t see it for myself. Later, the aforementioned professor said he “would allow” for me to write the paper. It took several drafts, and I was afraid to turn it in, but I did, and I passed the class.
I’m not really sure why Joel believed in me, but I’m glad that he did. I still have no idea how he may have gone to bat for me. To be fair, other than this experience, my classes were informative and I was always excited to learn. I took poetic theory, forms courses, workshops and read poetry by a myriad of diverse writers, thanks to my creative writing professors.
A couple of years later I walked out of grad school beaten into shape. I had more to learn, but I was a professional. My writing techniques had sharpened and I’d added more tools to my poetic toolbox. I would continue to read and write, and I had a thesis!