Agate just published this poem I wrote about the loss of a treasured tree and the new life that enters through the void of loss. Please take the extra step to hop on out to Agate to read this piece. Agate, where I interned this past spring, is doing a terrific job bringing together the arts and science to promote ecological stability and environmental protection (and respect) in Minnesota and the greater Great Lakes area. While you’re there, check out the fantastic fungi photo by my brother, Scott Fettig!
Kind of a thrill to be a part of a graduation processional again at age 46. Carpe Diem!
Normally, by this point in the school week, I would have long since written the requisite blog post for my Immersion in Publishing class. This week, however, I’ve been dragging my heels. When I paused to assess the reason for this uncharacteristic procrastination, I realized it was because I was putting off an ending.
With this post, I am completing my last assignment for this class, which is the last class of my MFA program. The moment I post this on my blog (and in Canvas, the online platform utilized by Bay Path), I will essentially be done with my MFA (aside from a few final responses to classmates and one last class this coming Thursday). As much as I’ve looked forward to (even counted down the weeks) to the ending of my MFA program, now that it is upon me, I feel myself hitting the brakes. Why is that?
It’s been a good week to contemplate the nature of endings. My son, Ethan, just completed his last college class on Friday; he’ll be graduating with a BFA in painting and drawing next weekend. For me, that is an ending to celebrate. Back in 2007, when my ex-husband lost everything (thankfully we were already divorced five years at the time and so my finances were no longer tied to his—with the exception of losing child support payments for a time), I had no idea how I’d manage to pay for our two kids’ college educations (although still four and six years ahead). It had always been my goal (was once my ex’s goal too) to do this for Han and E.
In the end, everything worked out. We lived frugally and (thanks to a promotion at work) I saved lots of money in CDs when interest rates were still high. Remarrying helped free up my savings towards Han and E’s college. Plus, my ex was finally able to help out with E’s college. Now, I’ve (*we’ve) done it. I’ve put Han and E. through college. Ethan—bless his heart—knew this distinct goal of mine and he congratulated me (Yes, he congratulated me!) on the day he completed college. So, I’ve done what I set out to do, a commitment made when my ex and I divorced. I’ve completed the raising of those two kids (which is not to say that Han doesn’t still call me every weekend, seeking advice). The rest is up to them.
It’s interesting how easily I celebrate the end of my children’s college years, but my own grad school completion, not so much. I think this is because my own ending creates a void. It’s the void of “what’s next?” especially when you’re a creative and the path is not obvious (as it might be to someone graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering). I see Ethan entering the void as well; he spent yesterday updating his artist web site. Anticipating the void, Kate Whouley, the instructor of my two publishing classes, asked us to draft and submit a signed writer’s contract. My professors have done their part. The rest is up to me.
The void created in the absence of the MFA program is mine to fill. To fill the void, I will keep writing.
The truest thing I’ve learned over the past three years of this MFA work is that I am a writer. Submitting pieces and receiving rejections is a part of the game. Having an essay or poem rejected is an ending (of the hope you had). It creates a void. To fill that void, I’ve learned to do one of three things: revise the piece (again), put it aside to mature (and then revise), or submit it immediately to another publication. This game is always half terror, half hope. But the act of writing (into the void) is what I love and that is why I’ll keep writing.
In honor of this ending, I compiled a list of my top ten hardest endings (in no particular order):
- 1999: A soulful friendship lost
- 1979: My black tuxedo kitten—Uncle Beethoven—run over by a car
- 1986: End of gymnastics career with back injury sustained during a vault
- 2016: A soulful friendship lost
- 2009: Putting my daughter Hannah on a plane, heading alone to Japan, effectively ending her childhood
- 2005: A soulful friendship lost
- 1988: The summer before college, when I was too entrenched in a binge eating disorder to feel (or understand) my high school losses
- 2014: My mom selling “our share” in the family cabin that my grandfather built and my last visit as an “owner”
- 2002: The end of my parent’s marriage, because it came the same year as my own divorce and their ability to parent me (as an adult child) came to an end exactly when I was in need of extra support
- 1984: The year my brother Scott headed to California on his red Kawasaki motorcycle, my brother Rob moved to the Twin Cities, and my brother Chris returned to college, leaving me home alone to referee my parents’ chaotic marriage
Not all endings are necessarily negative. And even with the “bad” ones above, I can now see what eventually came in to fill the void (except when Uncle Beethoven died). To end on a positive note, here are my top five endings (in no particular order):
- 2002: End of my marriage
- 2009: Remarriage ends my years of being single
- 2017: Second child of my first marriage completes college and I achieve one of my top five lifetime goals by seeing my oldest two kids through college
- 2010: Han home from Japan (end of Rotary year)
- 1998: End of short career practicing law
And now, I enter the void; I enter a time of waiting for new structures and experiences to add shape to my writing life.
*My husband, my ex, my ex’s spouse, and me
I like “timeline” math. It’s really the only kind of math I enjoy. Here’s an example of how it works: I zero in on a number, like my youngest son’s age. He’s lived seven and a half years, as of today. I then figure out how old he’ll be in that same amount of time, looking forward; counting from today, he’ll be 15 years old. I might then figure out how old I’ll be when he reaches that age. I’ll be 53 (not sounding so old anymore). I usually then move on to figure out something like how old I was when my oldest—my daughter—was fifteen. I was 37 years old (now seems incredibly young). I have no idea where timeline math gets me, in the end. It’s just something I do, perhaps because I’m a planner.
Today marks the beginning of week three of my final semester of my MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Bay Path’s semesters last 16 weeks. Because we get one week off for spring break, there are really only twelve weeks of my MFA program remaining. I was 44 years old when I began the program; I’ll be nearly 47 when I graduate. Hopefully, this leaves me time (before I die) to pursue the many writing projects my brain is entertaining.
Over the past few days, I’ve been reading about Ann Patchett’s writer’s path. She was 21 when she began Iowa Writers’ Workshop; presumably she was then 23 when she graduated. She was 27 when she published her first book. As hard as I run at this new career path, I’ll never catch up. There’s some relief in admitting I entered this writing game late. There’s also some relief in acknowledging I’ll never be Ann Patchett (particularly since I haven’t the slightest clue how one write’s fiction). Finally, as much as I’ve loved the Bay Path program, it’s fairly indisputable that it is not (yet) in the same league as Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Interestingly, Patchett does not speak glowingly of her MFA experience, or even of the inherent value of an MFA. I, in turn, will speak highly of my MFA experience, particularly of the accessible, one-on-one relationships that I’ve shared with writers like Kate Whouley, Lisa Romeo, and Mel Allen. I’ll also sing praises to the wonder of Suzanne Strempek Shea, who I encountered during Bay Path’s Ireland Field Study Program, which—thanks to Suzanne—is the crown jewel of the Bay Path MFA program. I will actually be sad (even depressed) to release my student status in mere weeks. This course of study was always less about the degree, or end result, than it was about the process along the way. For me, the journey was worth the sacrifice of time and money, even if I don’t end up with a $45,000 publishing agreement for my first book, as Patchett did, within a few years of graduating.
Immersion in Publishing is the only class on my roster this semester. It involves some class assignments but mostly time spent immersed in a publishing internship. I chose to do my internship locally, with Agate magazine—a journal that has a regional focus on the greater Great Lakes area. I might have, instead, procured an “East Coast” journal gig, as most of these internships can be completed online. Bay Path itself is fairly East Coast orientated. Although nonresidential, there are times I’ve felt a certain lack of connectedness with the program because I can’t simply “drive” to Bay Path to participate in some of its writing events.
Lately, I’ve wondered if I limited myself by procuring an internship in “Middle America.” That said, I’m likely to stay in the Midwest (I’m 46—as we covered above—and I haven’t left yet) and to prevent the anticipated void of writing mentors at the end of this program, I hope to have developed some potential Minnesota-based mentors. Although I’m doing acquisition work and social media marketing during the course of this internship, which I’ve only just dipped my toes into, Agate co-founders and editors, Laurie and Stephanie, have kindly offered to mentor me. I’ll be following retired MPR reporter, Stephanie, on some of her interviews and Laurie, a naturalist and poet, will work with me during the month of April, National Poetry Month, on developing a nature-based poem—one that might be published in Agate.
One and one equals two new writing mentors (perhaps more) and the promise of new beginnings.