14 August 2012

3.5 Timeouts Tuesday

How I got into this mess edition,

A little of the biography I generally avoid on this blog. 

I was once, as I have mentioned, a scholar.  Such was never my intention, nor was my failure to become a true, certifiable scholar. I became what I am by accident, or so it would seem. I began by pursuing a dream.


It was the dream of my heart in my youth to be a writer.  My teachers told me I was gifted and I should pursue those gifts.  In my youthful arrogance and folly, I listened.  It seemed the best course of action would be to attend a university, but which one?

The answer came in a most unexpected way.  One of the local high schools had a meet the universities night, where many universities sent representatives to give presentations about how wonderful their universities were.  The night was divided into three sessions. which was good, because I was curious about three universities.  I attended the first two sessions without a hitch.  When it was time for the third session, I followed the signs towards the presentation of the final university that was of interest to me, but here I ran into a problem:  The high school was not mine, and I was unfamiliar with the layout.  I followed the signs to an intersection in the hallways, and the signs all vanished.  I did not know which way to go.  The bell sounded, signalling that the third and final session was about to start, and I was nowhere near where I wanted to be.  I was instead standing outside the door to a presentation I had no interest in, but, since I was there and had nowhere else to go, I walked in.  I grabbed some brochures from a table near the door and headed for the very back of the room.  The presenter began his spiel, telling us how wonderful and fulfilling this university was, blah blah etc, and I began flipping through the brochures.  I opened the first one to a random page, and there it was: a description of the university's Creative Writing Program, the only one in Ontario of its kind.  This was what I wanted.  This was what I needed.  It was like God's finger pointing through the clouds telling me: "Go there."  I was trembling with excitement.  My path was now clear.  "Yes, God." I said. "I will go there."


You could not get into the program until the second year, so I declared my major to be English, which seemed close to writing, as it was reading, and prepared for my classes.  Or so I thought. 

My first creative writing teacher was a writer herself.  I thought this would be wonderful, except for one tiny problem: whilst she was a likeable women, she was a useless teacher.  She had no business being in a classroom.  She felt it was not her job to tell people how to write.  Her comments on our writing ranged from:  That's nice, to that's interesting.  The year under her was enjoyable, but a waste. 

Over the summer between second and third year, I pondered what kind of teacher I would like to have, and the idea struck me that, perhaps instead of a writer, it would be better to have an editor.  Someone who knew how to bash a story around, prune bad ideas, fertilise good ones.  But the schedule only listed the teacher as "to be announced," and I would have to wait to see.  The new teacher was not a writer, nor was he an editor.  He was the worst thing possible: a would be writer. 

You  can tell a lot about a would be writer by the influences he chooses.  In this case, his god was James Joyce.  He wanted to write like James Joyce, and could not understand how anyone would ever want to write any differently.  I hated James Joyce, so the class was a rough ride from the get go.  The only one in the class who had it worse than me was the Tolkien fan who based his writings on D&D scenarios.

I could go into endless detail about this class, but this is a quick hits style of post.  I will say this, and it almost goes without saying:  As a young writer, I wrote veiled autobiographies.  At the time, I was writing a story based on someone I knew in middle school, whom I never saw again after we went to separate high schools.  I used to hear about him and his stunts from mutual friends:  "Did you hear about Squirt? He mooned the cafeteria!"  "Yes," I said.  "That sounds like Squirt."  "Did you hear about Squirt?  He took the Principal's car for a joyride."  "Yes," I said.  "That sounds like Squirt."  "Did you hear about Squirt?  He blew his head off with a shotgun."  "That...doesn't sound like Squirt." I said.  But then I thought: or does it?  Little quirks and tics in his personality suddenly seemed key and critical, and I began to wonder about the things I did not know.  From this I formed a story about friends, and how well do we really know one another.  I thought it would be brilliant.

I was the only one. The class and teacher hated everything I brought in. What I thought was subtle foreshadowing and laser like insights into the human condition were the ham handed blathering of a youthful hack.  And because the story was autobiographical, their criticisms felt like personal attacks, including he time one of the classmates said:  "I hope the other guy kills himself soon!"  The other guy was, of course, my avatar. 

By the time I was done with that class, I could write no more.  The story was dead and given the burning it justly deserved.  I tasted bitter failure, and like on that day at the unfamiliar school, I could again feel God's finger pointing at me, only now he was saying: "Ha! Sucker."


My failure at writing overshadowed the fact that I was actually doing well in all my other courses at university.  I could not write fiction, it seemed, but I could write essays.  As fourth and final year began, I received a letter from the university, telling me that my marks were good  and I should consider graduate studies.  I began to wonder if perhaps this would be my true, best destiny.  Perhaps God's finger was again pointing, showing me the way.  It wasn't what I wanted, but it seemed like an acceptable destiny.  I could do this.

I got in.  Because I was at university, I met Puff.  I found work at the university to help me pay my way as I studied, and kept going.  Puff and I married, and we began to have children.  I was doing well at my studies, and the future looked bright,  but then the demands of wife and children began to take their toll. I took on an extra part time job, and then another. Some of my colleagues were also married with children.  Some could handle the pressure and juggling act.  Some could not.  I was beginning to flounder.

Around that time, I had a new manager at my part time job.  "You're a good worker," he said.  "How would you like to be made permanent?"

Being made a full time worker would clear up some problems, and it would mean a steady income for the family, but it would be next to impossible to continue the PhD.  I said I would consider it.

And so I found myself having tea with one of my colleagues one day, and we discussed our fields and our situations, when his supervisor came by.  He sat at the table, and began talking to my colleague, and asked him what was wrong.  The colleague began to explain his situation, which bore some similarities to mine.  I was curious to hear what advice the professor would give.

"It sounds like you need a divorce," he said.

"You think so?" said the colleague.  "I mean, I had thought about it, but I wasn't sure..."

"Absolutely," said the professor.  "If your wife and child are stopping you from achieving your degree, then you should do what's right for yourself."

The coldness of the words struck me hard.  I could not believe that would be the fist, and only advice that would be given.  But as I thought about it, I saw that the professor was right.  I had reached a crossroads:  I could have a family, or I could have a PhD, but I could not have both.  I would have to make a choice, but, in the end, a choice between those two was no choice at all.  I went to my manager, and told him I would take the full time job.


So, here I am. That is only part of the story, of course.  There are many stories interwoven with this little thread, and many digressions and plot shifts, but this is the essence of it.  I am a repeat failure, I suppose.  The job gave us money, but money is always tight.  I scrape by.  I am sick of scraping, but then I realize there are those who are worse off, and not just materially.  My colleague got his degree, and is doing very well, well recognized and noted in his field.  He is also a stranger to his daughter, and broke his bond with the woman he loved over some extra initials.  I am a failure, but there are worse things.


LarryD said...

Good guys don't finish last (or are a failure) - they just run a different race.

Great post.

Mrs. Stewart said...


My husband is several years into a masters in philosophy. No end in sight. I bust my hump so we don't have to live under a bridge and so we can pay for strangers to raise our son, who is an only child. To quit the program is failure. To remain in the program is insanity. A true dilemma.

I will be coming back to hear more of your story.

Patience said...

Many students now get a university degree; maybe also a Masters and then take a College certificate to get a job. Most of the students in my forensics course had degrees. And colleges are no longer "second best" but just part of the process. My older dd will go to college but graduate with a degree. Younger says she wants to be a teacher (given the job prospects; I hope she changes her mind)

Bear-i-tone said...

Mrs Stewart,

I wish your husband well.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot more I am willing to tell. There is more to the story, and impediments I faced, but at this time nothing good can come from bringing it all up again.

I will add that my colleague was not the only one to receive that advice, nor was he the only one to heed it. It seems to be the standard advice to give to married grad students: Split up. Your degree is more important than your life with your spouse.