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Highly Impractical and Completely Unanticipated

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This December I’ll be earning my Masters in Writing, a highly impractical and completely unanticipated happenstance. I am, shall we say, beyond college age.

graduation cap short tassle gold

My thesis has obliterated my actual life. Communication with normal people is out of the question. I went to a party on Sunday and the only topics of conversation I could conjure up were grammar rules and formatting templates. I think I had better stick with other thesis students for the time being.

I’m currently writing this post to avoid doing footnotes. My nails are bitten to little nubs, there are colorful life forms growing on the dishes in my sink, and my butt is numb from sitting at my computer.

In the words of David Byrne  and the Talking Heads:

“You may ask yourself, well — how did I get here?”

Good question.

As with most worthwhile endeavors, there was some loss and letting go involved before new life could take root. A couple of years ago, my world got weird when I lost my mother to the Great Beyond, my brother to mental illness, and my job to burn-out.

I was adrift, and life held nothing but questions.

Embracing the Counterintuitive

I began attending workshops at the Bethesda Writer’s Center near my home, hoping that writing might be therapeutic and perhaps even unleash new energy and indicate a new life direction. I filled journal after journal. Fortunately, I had a decent savings account, but I occasionally worried about what was next. Freelance writing, after all, is hardly a lucrative pursuit, especially if it’s primarily of the angst-filled, navel-gazing variety.

Then one day, a young man read a sentence in our workshop.  His name was Robert, and his sentence had something to do with a soccer game and a boy leaping into the air. It was beautiful. Magical. I saw that boy leaping into the air. I heard the smack of the ball.

Soccer Player Kicking A Soccer Ball Clip Art

“Where did you learn to write like that?” I asked Robert after class.

“I just graduated from Johns Hopkins in Writing,” he said, his brown eyes shining with pride. “It’s a part-time program with great teachers. You should check it out.”

I sensed that Robert had something I wanted.

Turns out that there was an open house that very weekend, and I went. Over crudités and seltzer water, I fell in love with the idea of becoming a fifty-something “returning student.” It sounded so — what? So risky, so bold, so romantic, so very not me.

I’ll admit it’s counterintuitive to spend your retirement savings on tuition, but I believe in destiny, and this felt like it. Or at least like fun.

I promised myself I would never take a class I wasn’t completely psyched about – the goal was not the degree, it was becoming the very best writer I could be and enjoying every moment. Losing my mother had taught me that life is short. I have kept that promise to myself and am having a blast. Okay, so maybe the writing conference in Florence, Italy was a bit extravagant, but it gave me memories, friends, and writing colleagues for life.

One Step at a Time

A year ago, nearing the end of the Hopkins program and still unsure of my future direction, I took a class in teaching writing. I thought maybe I could teach a workshop at a local community center or a nursing home or maybe even return to the Writer’s Center as a teacher.

Our first assignment was to create a syllabus. Ugh . For a college freshman composition class. Double ugh. (That’s literary language for ewww…) Mindful of having fun, I almost dropped the class but decided to stick it out another week to see what would happen.

I loved it! I created a detailed syllabus based on a topic I’m passionate about, environmental protection. When the professor returned it to me, he said I had gone way beyond what was required by designing field trips, including reading lists, and identifying guest speakers. At the end of the semester, he told me, “You would be a terrific writing teacher, just by being yourself. You absolutely have what it takes.”

It feels too good to be true, and it probably won’t pay much more than freelance writing, but I believe I’m being guided, one counterintuitive step at a time, to a new career doing something that I’m going to love!

I’m not going to do the graduation gown thing. I’m just inviting a few friends to the public reading where they’ll get free wine and cheese and listen to me and my twenty-something colleagues read our work.

Thanks to WordPress for the challenge to write a story backwards, starting with an event in the present and then following the wandering path back to the story’s  inception. And thanks, Robert, wherever you are. It’s been a fun ride.

And now back to my footnotes.

path on peat moor in sepia colour

The Wandering Path

Romping Write Through the Equinox

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Equinox approaches. The hummingbirds have entered kamikaze mode, frantically dive-bombing and bitching at each other as they load up on sugar for their astounding migration from my backyard in Maryland to Central America. Wouldn’t you think that given their insane metabolism, they would be designed to stay put? They don’t seem to store a gnat-worth of energy and have to suck nectar constantly. All that energy invested in endless migration! 

I had a boyfriend like that once. He thought that “settling down” meant being home in the fall and winter “when the kids are in school” and then taking his carpentry on the road for the rest of the year, leaving me with those imaginary kids. He poured his energy into gambling and darting from sweet flower to sweet flower…but I digress.

My point is that the shadows are slanting low, the leaves are beginning to fall, and it’s time to dig out my Fall Writing Plan. (I use CAPS so I’ll take it seriously.) The plan is captured on an Excel sheet, but also involves scraps of paper with colored inks, arrows and cross-outs. It consists mostly of revision, envelope-licking (gotta love literary mags with no online submissions), and assumptions of rejection. Here’s how it goes: I send out my best essays to my favorite outlets in May and June, wait for the rejections to arrive, tweak the essays, and then send them to my second choices. Then third. And so on.

You have to put yourself in puppy mode. You romp out into the world with an essay flapping in your teeth, all vulnerable and excited. As the months go by and reality sets in, you slowly curl up into a smaller and smaller ball and wait for the kick. And then, “Thank you for sharing your work with us. We regret…” Whimper. Then you’re to bounce back, leap to your furry feet with a hopeful smile, dash to the Post Office, and lay your precious words down for another kick.

“Aim for a specific audience,” many people advise. “You’ve got to study the publication. Read the articles, ads, and letters to the editor.”  This worked for me – once. I joined AARP, read their magazine, aimed at their audience and got published. http://www.aarp.org/work/social-security/info-11-2011/melanie-griffin.html#.TrqiPkT6_dg.email Yay!! No pay, but yay anyway. At this point, though, I’ve spent several months of the salary I no longer receive on magazines I’d never read otherwise. (Really, Mel? Martha Stewart?)     I’ve also spent whole days in the periodicals room at the library, taking copious notes about departments, deadlines and editors, only to find they’ve redesigned and let go half their staff by the time I’m ready to submit a piece.

“Screw the editors,” others say. “Just write what you need to write, and it will find a home.”  I like this organic approach better, but it’s not very pragmatic. This is the appeal of a blog, of course.  It doesn’t pay, but it’s a thrill that somebody out there cares enough to click and maybe even “like” or comment.

“You’ve just got to find the right fit.” This is my favorite advice and makes the most sense. It’s a combination of “aim strategically” and “pray hard.” At least I’ve got the prayer part down. I once took a class at the Bethesda Writer’s Center http://www.writer.org/ called The Business of Writing. The speaker said, “To be a freelance writer and author, you need to be disciplined, organized, and focused.”

Oh crap – three strikes.

But c’mon. Half the writers I know or have read about are (or were) heavy drinkers, and more than half are on meds for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or some combination thereof. A lot have flighty minds like mine, which don’t perch anywhere for long. In the last week, I’ve used napkins in a pizza joint to scribble the next scene of a short story I started two years ago, researched proposal writing for a book of creative nonfiction, submitted one historical essay, and revised a travel piece. Oh yeah, I’ve also written an essay for my Johns Hopkins writing class on what kind of teacher I expect to be. Apparently, undisciplined, disorganized, and none too focused.

Well, I’d better go. I’ve got to rifle through my desk and see if I can unearth my Fall Writing Plan. Happy Equinox!

It was here somewhere…

For more on hummer migration:

http://www.worldofhummingbirds.com/migration.php

And on the Autumnal Equinox:

http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-autumnal-equinox-of-2012

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