I wrote a thesis.
A lot of people write theses. Or dissertations. It’s not particularly unusual. But much like childbirth, though many people have written one, we all have a different, and very personal, experience. And I’m having trouble putting mine into words, which is actually pretty standard for a writer, I’ve come to realize. We, perhaps more than others, have trouble finding words. That’s why we piddle around with paragraphs and adjectives and descriptions–we can’t quite figure out how to say what we want to say so we start weaving an essay or a story to convey what others might blurt out in a few sentences. Stupid, ironic writers.
Anyway, I passed my defense, and I turned the thesis in to the binders and the library. It’s gone. I’ve sent it out into the world. And, as is the case with so many long-awaited deadlines, though everything has come to a grinding halt in my world, the inertia of the experience continues to propel me forward. And while I have looked to this time with eagerness and excitement and the anticipation of relief, that comfort has yet to hit me.
Many things happen when you finish graduate school. (And technically I still have a summer residency to attend, but that’s a different sort of work: a hard but immersive experience, one I’ll go through with other writers and friends.) The deadline that’s hovered over you for two years – the ever-frightening Defense (capital D) – comes and goes. You pass, and then…what?
Then, silly fool, life returns to normal. But normal isn’t something you know, now. It’s an unfamiliar life, one that has slipped through the cracks for two years while you were so busy working your weary ass off. You realize that your husband has been doing the laundry for 25 months, and that nobody has filed any papers or taken the dogs to get their heartworm medicine. You notice that the number of friends you had before you began school has shrunk considerably; they’re still out there, but you’ve kinda sorta vaguely lost touch, and all they know is that every time they see you at the grocery store you utter the word “thesis” with a preoccupied look in your eyes and express an interest in getting together that never goes any further than the bread section. And you know they don’t get what you’ve been through at all. They don’t know the exhaustive marathons and the crammed reading sessions and the obsession over commas and themes and forms. They don’t know you’ve rearranged doctor appointments and missed at least one or two of the kids’ field trips and that your butt, which was just starting to get firm when you were accepted to the program, has returned to its former tomato shape and has been joined by abs that have let go and neck muscles frozen at an angle that automatically directs your eyes towards the level of a screen.
They don’t know you’re secretly worried that now, without a deadline or a mentor or a tuition check on the line, you might lose your momentum and grow complacent. You fear you might just get a regular job to finally make some money and promise yourself that you’ll write in the mornings, but that without a group of teachers pushing you, you’ll fall back into the unmotivated and unsuccessful place that drove you to an MFA in the first place. They have no idea how much is riding on your continued efforts to put words on the page, and that you’ve got no fucking clue at all how you’re going to make it happen, or publish a book, or even how to clean up your office after two years.
“I just passed my thesis,” you’ll say to your friend in the grocery story. And they’ll say “Congratulations,” and you’ll ask them about their kids and then you’ll go home and feel this silent and powerful impetus to get busy, because the deadline has melted away on paper but not in your brain; it still feels like you’ve got to hustle. And do you hustle, to keep the juices flowing so you don’t rot away into a “regular person” place, or do you just sit down and breathe for the first time since September 1, 2014?
I don’t know the answer. That’s why I’m writing, or rather, dancing around with myself in a circle on a blog that nobody reads.
When we give birth to our children, the work really begins after the test. Childbirth is that test, and once the final has been passed, then we set about learning and working. It’s the opposite of school. (Of course, the whole, frightening, you-can’t-ever-quit-and-your-failure-means-the-complete-ruination-of-multiple-lives thing makes it intense, too. No pressure.)
But here and now, I’ve finished the hard work. The test came last, and I passed it. But the caveat is that, when you have a baby, you get to practice on them. You have years to get it right. Babies are pretty flexible. They bounce when you drop them (so sorry, Andy), and they accept apologies when you wrong them. With writing, I’ve already done the practice. Now I need to step up. But of course, I have no more clue than I did on the first day at home with Andy, and it’s all jabberwocky. All I know is that I have to put into use all of that practice, all of those tentative test-runs.
Graduate school was a goal I set for myself, and one I shared with nobody else. It was just me and this thing, this desire to be a writer and to educate myself in that pursuit. Now I’ve achieved the goal, but it doesn’t feel solid. Somehow I thought I’d have something physical, something of this world, to wrap my hands around, a hunk of proof that I was in this place I’d sought for 15 years. Instead, I’m stepping off the train into a world both familiar and unfamiliar. I’ve been here before; it’s my life that I’m recognizing, but like the sweaters that Shawn always shrinks, it fits differently now.
Rather than a tangible reward for my efforts, I’ve got only life lessons and intense memories. Here is the week I worked through an auto-immune attack. Here is the day I decided to switch my thesis from nonfiction to humor. Here is the time I read an essay to my husband and he laughed and laughed. I’ve got a pile of things behind me, now, and nothing on the horizon, yet.
Yet. There’s a lot of walking to do. I need to start.