The longest semester

m&m store wall of m&ms

I am officially back at school, finishing up my MFA after a semester leave of absence–and the other night I went to class, a final workshop to end all workshops. It begins.

I felt ages had passed. This is my unexpected 4th year in a 2 year program, and I did not recognize many faces at all. In fact, if I had not TA’d a class full of first year MFA students last Fall, I would have recognized no one in the halls. As it was, I knew no one in my workshop. And yet, the walls and the chairs, engraved with the school name, that very room where I have had several workshops, and everything else about the setting was so very familiar. It was as if I’d walked into a dream of sorts.

I sat there, hit by a wave of nostalgia. When was the last time I’d had a night workshop? And in that room? 2nd semester, first year. Novel workshop. Where I’d begun my novel. Wow.

Class predictably started with the introductions. Tell us about yourself, and then about your literary self, and then tell us about what you’ve been reading, who you like to read. Have I told you? I hate talking about my literary self. Even though, yes, I have this blog where all I do is write about myself.

We went alphabetically. Some people took a very long time, loving the liberty to talk about themselves (Oh, the self masturbatory nature of some workshop discussions! Grandstanding! Hearing oneself speak! Loving one’s own voice!)

“Oh. I love Haruki Murakami,” I started out when my turn came. “Except for Hard Boiled Wonderland which just perplexes me. And I’ve been reading Yasunari Kawabata because the two writers were very contentious and I thought I’d check out the opponent of Murakami. And my favorite novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.” I took a breath. “I was writing a novel but these days I’m writing short stories–two of which I’ll submit this semester.” Done. Did I tell you? I hate describing myself?

The instructor, a Famous Writer, smiled her sweet smile and asked me, “What is your novel about?” I guess I didn’t talk long enough nor did I share enough information.

Having had to describe it for the past few years, I described it in 2-3 sentences. Description of main character. His predicament. The invention by which he aims to get himself out of his predicament.

“Ooooohhhh,” I heard a few people breathe. And all the paranoia in my heart and soul came crawling out. Everything from “Will someone now steal my idea?” to “Gah, I can’t believe I talked about my novel-fetus! Now I’ve jinxed it!” And of course deep apologies to my novel for lifting up her skirt and showing everyone her underwear.

I don’t like to talk about my novel–just as many cultures and people don’t like to talk about a child until it is born into the world, I don’t like to discuss my novel in progress.

“And what?” asked the instructor, “Made you decide to set it aside?”

Oh. I didn’t feel like answering that. But before fear or doubt could set in, I replied. “I had a stroke on New Year’s Eve and I just can’t–I can’t wrap my head around the novel right now, so I’m writing short stories instead.” Did I make sure to say it matter of frankly? I sure did.

“Ohhhhhh,” said a chorus. Ugh. And then dead silence. I think some 2nd year students recalled the email sent out about my health predicament last semester.

The Famous Writer, shocked, stammered an apology, “I’m so sorry, it’s just that I’m curious as to why people abandon their novels….”

“It’s okay,” I said. It wasn’t okay, but I just wanted the moment to be over. I’ve learned that saying “It’s okay” makes a lot of moments over very quickly.

More discussion, more self masturbatory commentary. The excitement of 1st year students, and the not-yet-waning excitement of 2nd year students crackled in the air. And made me feel even more out of place and out of sync. I began to regret not taking the one additional class and graduating last Fall and instead deciding to go one more semester.

Just sitting at the table, sitting in a somewhat circle (more an rectangular-elliptical) shape, in that hot, south facing, darkening room, yet to release its heat from the afternoon…made me remember, “Oh yeah. I’m workshopped out.” But I chose a workshop as my last class on purpose. I don’t have to write a twenty five page paper, I don’t have to read a novel a week, in workshop. That’s a good thing for me these days. I don’t know if I could achieve that, cognitively, without lots of headache. And a workshop would help me get my thesis done.

But the chatter exhausted me. I’ve healed a lot, but my verbal short term memory, always weak but terribly damaged after the stroke, is still my weakest cognitive link. I have to really focus to remember what a person says–and it’s hard when not everything is important or critical and I have to then decide what to drop from my head. It’s like juggling, and the act of juggling weighs me down. For that same reason, I prefer email to phone calls, much to some of my friends’ (the ones who love phone calls) chagrin.

I weakly kept up with the discussion in silence. I sifted the dialogue for gems. There was a lot of sifting, between the chit chat of first workshop and many things I’d already heard before.

With nothing visual in front of me, and sixteen (the class is limited to twelve, but there were a handful of people on the waitlist) voices piercing the air, I went blank quickly. It became time to sign up on the workshop sheet. The instructor at one point kiddingly pointed out, “Look, Jade looks horrified!” when I asked if I could go earlier, in order to prepare my thesis. I wasn’t horrified. I was exhausted and blank.

I tried to wipe my thinking slate clean, go to a peaceful place in my mind (a meadow, a stream? the ocean?), just for survival. I didn’t do it happily; I’ve been a big workshop participant these past years (well, until I got burnt out on workshops) and have made a huge effort to participate and keep track of the chatter.

In the end, I let it all go. “F*ck it,” I said, as I often do when overwhelmed now. Does it matter? It doesn’t matter. I’ll go with the flow, and whatever happens, happens.

Sitting there, I thought, “This is going to be a loooong semester.”

But sometimes, when I say “F*ck it,” and let go of control (or as the interminably chirpy looking Barbie Carrie Underwood says in her saccharine lyrics, “Let Jesus take the wheel,”–except please take out Jesus and insert G*d or the Muse or Fate or Life in my case) the best things do happen.

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9 Comments

Filed under MFA, Writing

9 responses to “The longest semester

  1. Eve

    “Gah, I can’t believe I talked about my novel-fetus! Now I’ve jinxed it!” And of course deep apologies to my novel for lifting up her skirt and showing everyone her underwear.” Priceless! Truly priceless!

    This stuff is great. Entertaining; real; well written.

    I know you’ve been so frustrated with the aftermath of the stroke and how it’s affected your work on the novel; but since I haven’t seen any of your fiction, I have to say I can’t wait to read each new post because they’re just that entertaining. I hate to be syrupy and suggest making lemonade out of the lemons you’ve been dealt lately, but, really… I think there’s a lot of good stuff here that you could turn into something that would sell.

  2. This should be called “The Longest Post.” haha. I’ll have to read it when I have more time.

  3. heather

    unconventional fourth years, unite! 🙂

  4. i’ve always found murakami daunting. so i’ve never read any of the books. do you have a suggestion?

    good luck on the class, i’m sure you’ll pull through… 🙂

  5. Eve: thank you for the encouragement–sometimes this blog is what keeps my writing spirits buoyed!

    Bustopher: I know, it got long.

    Heather: yes, for sure! how are you doing at school, 4th year status?

    no milk: His most “mainstream” novel is Norwegian Wood, which is basically a love story of sorts. His masterpiece is Wind Up Bird Chronicle (rivaled by Kafka on the Shore). His short story collection, After the Quake has a bunch of accessible short stories. But though he writes both genres, I find his mastery is in the novel.

  6. thanks! i’ll be sure to check them out!

  7. You know I hate that question, “What is your novel about?” Even among fellow writers — maybe it’s even worse among fellow writers?

    It feels like you were really put on the spot there, having to mention your stroke, but it sounds like the way you handled it was perfect: simple, honest, and very brave.

    I hope this long last semester of yours becomes truly fulfilling for you and your writing.

    Oh, and I love the long posts!

  8. nova: I knew you would understand! What’s your novel (specifically: a novel in progress) about is just such an incredibly personal question.

    It is a question that needs to be propped up–asked in a safe space, with a particular context, from particular people, with a strong show of interest and caring.

    Anyway. I’m glad you liked the long posts. I kept writing, and didn’t realize I had so much to say, but hit “publish” anyway.

  9. Hey,

    Well, one thing that is useful is to have a stock answer for the question. When people ask and I don’t want to talk about it, I can usually just trot out the main conceptual stuff, but you know, that’s probably also an SF thing. There’s always some kind of central conceit I can chatter about without getting into too many specifics.

    Have you considered using a voice-recording device in class? In Seattle, one of my classmates had a wrist injury, and couldn’t take notes. With everyone’s permission, she ended up recording everything, and shared the recording with the class, and they have come in really handy for me later. Even a little iRiver should have enough space to record a 1-hour crit, I think — though check on that! (I use an iAudio M3 and an iAudio X5L and both can record for an hour or two at a time, if you set the bitrate right and have enough space.)

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