When I left home on August 21, 2019 to pursue my MFA at Chapman University, I had no idea what I was stepping into. I was sad walking away from my family at the airport, hearing my mother cry as I tugged on my suitcases and turned my back from the life I’ve known and lived. It was the one world I was familiar with and to think I was moving out of it into the unknown was scary. There were a lot of emotions at that moment, but what I remember feeling the most was fear—real fear—shooting through my whole being.
Now nearly two years later, I don’t feel as though something is sucking the air from my lungs. Of course, I have had—and continue to have—days and weeks of uncertainty, loneliness so thick it fills up every room I walk into, fear of things going very differently from what I hoped or planned and a heightened sense of insecurity. There’s a sudden awareness that at any point, something could happen and coming to terms with how little control I have has been terrifying. I’ve just found out that a job I thought I could have for two more months, I only had three days until I was no longer eligible to work. And then just yesterday, I saw two cars run into each other at an intersection. Right before my eyes, one of the cars just spun and spun in the middle of the road. And I screamed and clutched my chest. Deep breaths, deep breaths as both cars filled with airbags. And then I came home to eat fried eggs and pancakes and went out for the second day of my driving lesson, as if my world wasn’t breaking even a little. The whole time, my heart sunk into my stomach. The whole time, I was not okay.
These are all very unrelated events of course, and yet, so much of life has been like that: unexpected changes, life threatening things happening all around me, and somehow there I am living right through it, somehow picking myself up and returning to life with tired but open arms, telling myself I’ll try again. I’ll gather what’s broken, I’ll pick up what’s left, and I will make of it something meaningful. It won’t always be as I hoped it would, but it would be something. And I will try, with all my heart and with honest intention, to make peace with it and with myself. I have found, more often than I would like to admit, this perseverance, this act of getting back up and trudging through the mud, has been possible because of the people around me. It’s something I say often and will probably keep saying a long time—I have only made it where I am, only experienced this much growth, because of the community I have been incredibly blessed to have in my life, here at Chapman University, and my family at First Presbyterian Church.
My first year
I remember Dr. Ian Barnard listening to me patiently in his office as I exclaimed, “I can’t talk in class! When I speak, I feel like I’m going to have a panic attack.” And how he coached me, said I could write my answers or questions down and read them out loud; how he said he can tell I’ll be a good teacher some day and I was petrified at the thought and cried, “No no no, never!”And now I laugh thinking about it because I’m off to the University of Nebraska to teach English Composition to first-year students.
I remember Samantha Dunn talking about deep embarrassment for one’s work (during a time I simply did not have it in me to celebrate the release of my poetry chapbook) and how it springs from a sense of insecurity and a perfectionist impulse. She wrote to me and said “Writing is a kind of service. You of course will go on to write better poems, brilliant essays, more mature novels, all of that—But if only one person gets something out of one of these poems, you will have contributed something. And that is worth everything. I stopped seeing my work as something I alone did, but more as something that came through me, bigger than myself. And that helped me take my ego out of it as well.”
I can’t forget Dr. Justine Van Meter, who made a Literature class a party of its own, and her words, “I understand your anxiety about speaking in class. My hope is that we will create a comfortable environment so that everyone will want to contribute to discussions without all of the anxiety that can come with that.” And for the very first time ever, I spoke a little without feeling like I was under an attack. Somehow, she transformed the whole class. I could be wrong, but I think she was so authentic as an instructor, so at ease and joyful with herself that her presence and personality just spilled over and the most natural thing it seemed to do was to relax and join the fun. I didn’t have to prove anything. I wasn’t right or wrong. I could laugh at myself. I could listen and not feel the need to say something. I was learning in the healthiest environment I’ve ever been in and I had so many questions. I asked them inside and outside of class. When I teach, I hope to have that—to be so real and alive and present, and passionate about the learning experience, so much that I can’t help but extend that level of grace to my students.
*When I originally published this post, I made a grave error of omitting an important name- Richard Bausch: a man whose contribution is not only significant but very dear to my heart. The first time I received payment for my work, the first time my name showed up in a prestigious lit journal was only possible because Richard had listened to me read my story and saw what I didn’t see—potential. It was a major publication that would go on to bring my story to millions of readers and set me up for a publishing life way beyond what I thought was possible for me. Richard’s unmediated attention to the act of writing has propelled me to grab a book and chase a story out of me, his recognition of the heart of a story teaches me to surrender to it, and his impassioned insistence on clarity lends me a vital approach in my creative process—to develop a narrative voice that is so intimate, so real and void of any obstruction that the reader has no other choice but be pulled into the rich and quickening world of a story. What I’ve taken from him is the hard work of the craft, the urgent dedication, and every effort it takes to create work, good work.
“To my mind, nothing is as important as good writing, because in literature, the walls between people and cultures are broken down, and the things that plague us most—suspicion and fear of the other, and the tendency to see whole groups of people as objects, as monoliths of one cultural stereotype or another—are defeated. This work is not done as a job, ladies and gentlemen, it is done out of love for the art and the artists who brought it forth, and who still bring it forth to us, down the years and across ignorance and chaos and borderlines.”Richard Bausch
*Updated August 4, 2021
My second year
James Blaylock engaging with my short stories in a way I never thought was possible. The man is a genius, and a kind one too. About my thesis, he writes: “I’ll happily say that you’ve put together a collection of original, strong, elegantly written, clear, unforgettable, affecting stories. I’ll say without much hesitation that this is the finest thesis I’ve read. You’ve already succeeded, but you’ve got more success in store for you.” And I believe him.
My advisor during the program and the one who has consistently challenged me is Dr. Anna Leahy. She’s what I like to think of as a gentle and quiet force. Her influence on my growth and success as a student is phenomenal and yet, so much of what she does is in the background—coaching, recommending books, directing me to resources, sharing opportunities with me, nudging me to show up and give a presentation when I could very well pee in my pants if I so much as stood before an audience of two.
Everything is better and lovelier with the precious friendship of Ansalee Morrison. Her presence in my final semester is a sweet and marvelous miracle. We’ve asked ourselves why it took so long to meet each other but what we haven’t done is waste a minute of it. Thank you for opening up a place inside me, possibly shut for too long. You had me going “So this is what friends do! So this is it!”
And of course, there’s Lisa Cupolo—the star of this journey, my ever faithful friend and mentor. The one who pulls me away from my desk and closed-world of studies and shakes me back to life. “You have to live!” The one who has made me the reader that I am, dropping books after books and driving me to the library. The one screaming on the phone at every good news. And in the dark times, when I can barely eat or sleep or talk and with a fountain of tears behind my eyes, she is the one that doesn’t let me fall through the abyss. She yanks me out of it—a Toni Morrison thick kind of love.
At the Psychological Counseling services, she knocks and knocks on the door. She is more desperate than I am. When someone opens the door, we understand we haven’t made an appointment. We should go and return some other time. But Lisa is persistent. She says this is an emergency. I shake my head no. It’s not an emergency, I say, meanwhile my heart feels as if it is expanding in size, swelling inside me body. The counselor looks at the two of us like she doesn’t know who to believe — the crazy woman or the sad girl? But she must know, because she lets us in. Lisa wins. I talk about the hand dragging me into the dark, I talk about the palpitations, something boiling madly inside my throat. I talk about the fears, the panic, the shock. And she listens and takes notes and I cry and my whole body shakes with it. Help comes. Deep breaths. I win, and it is only because of Lisa, the friend of my heart.
You have changed my whole life and bestowed upon me an unforgettable honor. You saw my potential and created room for me to develop my skill and championed me every step of the way. There is a lot I will miss. But most importantly, I am wrestling with leaving behind the people I’ve come to know, respect and admire. I don’t know what it is but I can feel it—this longing for what I already have, as if I’m no longer here and a part of the community. It’s hard to put into words what this experience is worth to me and if anyone asked me what I want now, I’ll probably say, “To keep what I have and to hold closest to my heart my own.” Now I see this is possible, even if I’m away.
In Zadie Smith’s article Joy, she mentions writer Julian Barnes and what he says about mourning: “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” And I realize why this is hard; it is precisely because of the immense joy and reverence I feel for this community. I should say I am not pessimistic about the future. I have learned and grown during my time here. I have marked so many milestones that will now pave way for more success in my future. More than ever, I am aware of the possibilities that abound, and I am moving forward with genuine urgency and curiosity in all that I do. Thank you for everything.
❤ Thinking of you: Nana Prempeh, Lila Bausch, Nayana Rajnish, Kim Bowcutt, Marrissa Lawson, Deb Paquin & Jason Thornberry. In big and small ways, you made this experience more meaningful, and a little less lonely.