The happiest day of my life was the day I realized I would never have to live in my hometown again. With my belongings moved into an apartment in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, my twin bed siphoned off from my two roommates' beds, and my nineteenth birthday party taking place in my new dining room with my new friends around a German chocolate cake purchased at the two-level grocery store on the corner, I knew that all of my hard adolescent work had paid off.
I now would be free. My greatest fear of withering away at home would not come to pass.
The saddest day of my life was the day I moved from Chicago back to my hometown.
There are a lot of reasons why this happened. For starters, money. For other starters, external pressure. Heartbreak was another reason. But soon I found myself back on familiar streets living an ordinary life in a place where the extraordinary refused to surface.
We have no oceans in my hometown. We have a river, and it's filthy.
Many people feel this hopeless giving up, although I doubt many of them feel it as early as twenty-three. I did good work here, and I continue to do good work, but something was missing. The glimmer that happened when I wrote far off worlds, the echo of my voice when I sang. "Why don't you sing anymore?" someone asked me ... no, a lot of people asked me.
There was no point, I could have answered. It will just remind me of what I could have been, would have been another good one. But usually I just answered, "Oh, I'm busy. And things. And life. And no one wants to hear it, anyway."
It had to stop.
Ray Bradbury writes in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, that in order to live, in order to "stay alive," we have to keep writing. We have to come up with those crazy worlds no one else can see. We must believe in magic, or "Buck Rogers," as he puts it.
So Alex, my fiance, found Mur Lafferty's podcast and in turn found Stonecoast. For months, the two of us schemed to get me into the MFA program. And then one day, Nancy Holder called and told me the good news.
As you know, I went to my first residency last week. And I am about to tell you why you should stop not singing, start staying alive, and find your own Stonecoast.
The night before, I was afraid. I told Alex that he needed me, that my dead friend needed me, that the dishes in the sink needed me. "It's too far away, I'm too scared, I can't make friends, everyone will hate me, I'm not good enough." But stalwart Alex lugged my 49.5 pound checked bag all the way to his car, and then all the way into the airport.
In my book, Abigail is a young girl who is trapped in Boston and damned to walk the earth after her airship is taken from her. There is a scene where she escapes, bursting into the sky and seeing the sun strike the white clouds from above. And when that plane pierced the rainstorm and breathed out into the air, I felt like something new was about to happen.
For the first time in a long time, I had a chance.
Maine is a different sort of place. I say different because it's not like anywhere I've lived. Even my hometown is loud with this incessant noise from the interstate and the planes from the airforce base. But Portland is silent. As soon as I got rid of the jet engines in my ears, I realized how quiet the airport was. And then I recognized silence in the parking lot, the road, the highway, and finally Bowdoin College Campus.
And for the first time in five years, I was welcomed by people who understood what I wanted to do with my life.
It was like coming home.
Stone House sits on a peninsula (which I loudly remarked in our coach bus upon seeing it: "WE ARE ON A PENINSULA!"), and it is beautiful. If you look through the trees in the front yard, you see sailboats and the ocean. Mist hangs in the trees, mud flats magically transform into roaring seas in a matter of hours. At night, I walked around the park with my friend as trails dissipated into the fog. This was the land of Stephen King, Herman Melville, Jules Verne, and my own imagination.
"You are not an aspiring writer," the director of the program told us. "This is the point in which you become a writer. Virginia Woolf had a moment where she became Virginina Woolf. And this is yours."
I ran back to my temporary dorm room and I typed, typed, typed on my story. My teachers knew my heroes, my teachers were my heroes, and I'd read them all my life. This was a place where students published their work and won Campbell Awards.
Stonecoast was a place where people did the things other people talked about maybe someday doing. Stonecoast was a place full of people who said, "I understand. I hurt, too. It's okay. We'll write about it together." Stonecoast was where the Muggle borns came together for ten days every six months to build their armor, give out six months' worth of hugs, and write as fast as our hands could go.
I watched the graduation of the class of 2014, and I saw that this program did not just change my life, but had changed their lives.
I'm back home now, reading Bradbury and finishing up Verne. Tomorrow, I lock myself up in a hotel room and revise the beginning of my manuscript for my mentor. And although I know this year is going to be a long one, I know that I'm not alone. I know I have a goal.
I know Maine exists.
Please do not wrap yourself up in a blanket of malaise. Please go out and do what you love to do. Find people who also love to do that thing. And be happy for it.
It's not too late. Go be happy. Find your magic place where the fog comes in and the sailboats can get all the way out to the ocean.
Workshopping Others' Work
How nice should I be? How mean should I be? I'm editing my classmates' stuff, and I'm used to editing as an editor with a client I am working for. And yes, you as the editor must have a bit of teamwork in that kind of relationship with your client, but at the end of the day, you've either been given many moneys to help that client for your expertise, or you have been hired by a publisher because you know what you're doing. There's confidence in that role. Now I'm sitting not as an editor, but as a classmate, a peer. If I'm too mean, then maybe I'm being precocious. If I'm too nice, then maybe I'm not doing my assignment correctly. Without knowing the culture of the school or how MFA programs work, I might just dip into pro-mode and start giving notes on what must change before this can be published ... before I remember that's not my place in this case.
Getting torn apart in Workshop
So in this program, you submit your manuscript about three months before you actually go to workshop. I've completely revised the crappy manuscript I turned in, working with other editors and writer pals to get it to a better place. Now that I look at my old draft, I am so afraid of what is to come at this workshop. I want to give one of those taboo disclaimers, where I stand up and wave my arms in the air and shout, "I know it sucks! I just worked twelve weeks making it not suck! Please God don't think I suck!" But we all know I wouldn't ever do that ...
Being a Noob
I'm not gonna lie. I am hella awkward when I don't know anyone in a situation. And I know this is a stupid thing to worry about. I'm an adult! I am like three years away from being thirty, I have a full-time career, I have published a book and plays and have traversed some of the scariest American cities all by myself. I worked at a publishing company for three years. I freelance edit. I've started two writing groups. I teach Creative Writing. I have no bed time, damn it!
I am so scared of coming off like a faker, like a false writer, like an idiot who just finally learned what a chapbook looks like. I have this inexplicable fear of showing up and taking one look at everyone and realizing that while I know my stuff, they all got into a secret club long ago; a club to which I received no invite. I know this is stupid, but how as an adult, do I still worry about who I'm going to sit with at the lunch table?
Being Away from Home
Again, a stupid one for a grown woman. My fiance just moved up to this town. We haven't been separated since we ended our Long Distance Relationship three months ago. And now, a week, before I'm about to leave, our friend has died. I'm missing my friend's memorial game night to go to this residency, and I'm leaving behind a fiance who has just realized that mortality exists and we all are doomed to say goodbye to one another. I also will not lie: I slept in a blanket fort last night, because my friend made blanket forts, and when bad things happen, blanket forts sound like the best thing ever and you just want to sit in one and drink mounds of pop out of a Twizzler straw. The idea of leaving home right now is a tough one, but life has to carry on and we have to carry ourselves with it. Oh, happy day!
Not Packing the Right Stuff
So I'm flying to Maine. I have to fit everything I need into like a suitcase. I've never been to Maine, and I've never been to these dorms or this college. I've heard I need a fan. Other than that, I do not know. What if I forget an important book? What if I forget my toothbrush? What if I forget my homework?!
Honesty, again: I plan to glomp onto the nicest, most patient upperclassman I can find and just tail them for the entire ten days. In the unfortunate event I cannot find a willing upperclassman, what will become of me? I will miss a bus. I will miss a class. I will miss food. I will miss the really cool hangout where everyone gets to know each other. I will get lost in Portland and no one will ever find me again!
Not Realizing How Stupid It Was to Worry Until It's Too Late
I've heard that the Stonecoast residency is "like coming home." From the people I've met, they're so very nice.
I've been thinking a lot about my friend. I met them --- and yes, I am using them out of respect, not out of improper grammar --- on Facebook before I moved away to undergraduate. I was so nervous, not knowing what awaited me in Chicago and this university where fancy things happened and fancy strangers attended. So I reached out, to the people on Facebook who were also going to be freshmen in the fall. This was 2006, so there was actually a spot to write which dorm you were in, and so I searched people who would be living down the hall from me.
My friend was one of these people.
Looking back on our very first conversation via chat, because we live in the world of technological ghosts, I see that we were both very nervous about leaving home and going into the great perhaps. I barely knew the person who would become my friend. They were nothing but a stranger on Facebook, and I couldn't think of a scenario where college was an actual day-to-day, real-life thing I would excel at.
Now, eight years later, my friend and I had our last conversation a week ago, before they were taken. Our last conversation, funnily enough, was about that first year of college and who we'd roomed with. We reminisced on the hard parts, but also the good parts. We didn't know it would be our last conversation.
But that conversation was full of good memories. Although we'd been nervous about moving to the city and taking on the world, we'd done it. We both found happiness. We both grew into strong adults. We both had been brave enough to take that step into adventure and friendship.
Now I feel that anxiety again, starting a new chapter and a new program. I've met people on Facebook in preparation, and I feel as if I'm about to make a whole new bunch of friends. I can't imagine my day-to-day life being in a place far away that I've never seen in a program I've never experienced.
But eight years from now, I'll look back on this list of worries, and I'll laugh. Because new adventures are always frightening, but they're always worth it.
To all of you starting your MFA Programs, may the odds be in our favor.
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Dawson is a writer. This is her blog. In it, you shall read about reading. And writing. And cheeseburgers. Sometimes there are tangents. Huzzah.