af•ter•math (ăf‘tər-măth’) n. 1. A consequence, especially of a disaster or misfortune: famine as an aftermath of drought. 2. A period of time following a disastrous event: in the aftermath of war. 3. A second growth or crop in the same season, as of grass after mowing.
It doesn’t seem possible that it’s January again. It feels like only a few weeks have passed since I wrote my New Year post for 2014 and acknowledged with trepidation and bittersweet sentiment all that would, with hard work and luck, come to fruition in the coming months. Those were brave days, and it wasn’t at all lost on me that I had bitten off more than I could likely chew.
In addition to professional and personal events and milestones, this past year marked the culmination of so many long-pursued endeavors and academic “lasts.” I took my last class of Chapman’s dual MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing program in the spring, a delightful independent study on seven major works of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I wrote the last chapters required for my MFA thesis and defended it successfully in November. I had my last meeting with professors I have revered and appreciated so intensely these past six years and stood in familiar classrooms one last time, memorizing the sounds and smells I’ve grown to cherish and rely on for inspiration. Gazing out their windows that last day, I saw the ghosts of my Chapman friends who sat with me, night after night, glassy-eyed and starving, too, as they pursued their dreams alongside me. A few are still there, but most have also graduated and moved on. And, with a lump in my throat and a heavy heart, I walked across campus for the last time, feeling just as Billy Collins describes in “Writing in the Afterlife”:
I knew I would not always be a child
with a model train and a model tunnel,
and I knew I would not live forever,
jumping all day through the hoop of myself.
I had heard about the journey to the other side
and the clink of the final coin…
My classmates spoke often of graduation, calculating with anticipation how much longer until they finished their degrees and could get on with their lives. I understood their eagerness to graduate; it is the objective of any academic program, after all. But my situation was different. Pardon the cliché, but I was there for the journey, not the destination. For me, graduation signified the end of a creative existence I had spent half a lifetime trying to resume. I was high on academia, and degree conferral loomed like an ambiguous buzzkill. Consequently, I took my time through the program and didn’t think about finishing. I wanted merely to be in the moment, sitting in classes and attending readings and flying to conferences and looking for hidden treasures in the library and studying and writing in blissful perpetuity. And now it’s all behind me.
I’ve spent the last six Januaries preparing for spring classes, studying for the comprehensive MA exam, and writing my thesis. With the program now completed, the usual frenetic velocity of the month has slowed, and I find myself with time to read and write at a more leisurely pace and reflect on what’s next. There have been moments of panic since November, to say the least. What will I do, and how productive will I be without writing workshops and professors and course deadlines to guide and push me? I still have the English department’s marketing flyer from 2008 tacked to my bulletin board above my writing desk. “Write your own success story,” it urged. That had done it for me. I enrolled that fall and proceeded to write my own narrative, nearly two hundred pages of which comprised my MFA thesis. But the story isn’t finished, and I’ll need to dig deep to keep up the writing momentum on my own – to maintain the grass, so to speak.
Sleep will be somewhat of an initial priority. I admit I’m tired. Not so much my body, but my mind and my soul are simply sapped from the years of constant thinking and creating and feeling. Completing this program is akin to finishing a great book. You’re intellectually depleted, emotionally drained, and physically exhausted from staying up too late for too many nights, absorbed, but you’re also sad and sort of lost when you close the pages for the last time, and you hunger immediately for another great book, despite your burning eyes.
After a brief time of rest, a shiny new list with even loftier aspirations will undoubtedly emerge. There are countless submission opportunities, conferences to attend, topics to research, short stories and blog posts and newspaper columns to write, my current manuscript to finish, and the seeds of a new novel to water and nourish. And PhD candidacy beckons. In the words of Lily Briscoe (ah, my dearest Lily!), where to begin?
So the New Year sans graduate school – at least for now – awaits its first mark. And I am poised with pen, almost ready to make it.