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The End of the First Year


I finished my first year of graduate school in social work, but I still feel anxious, as if there’s some assignment I forgot to do. I did not get all A’s this year, for the first time in forever, and that’s been hard to accept. I did all of the assigned work, and more, but there was some essential disjunct between the work required of me and the way my mind works. I just felt at odds with it all year, but not in a self-righteous or confident way, more like, every once in a while they started speaking in a language I couldn’t understand, and I felt like a moron.

It’s not just a question of jargon, where, once I learned what they meant by certain words, I could catch up. It was something in the way they wanted me to think that just didn’t click for me, and I’m scared that this gulf will remain throughout the next two and a half years of school, and then out into the professional world, and I will never feel quite right in this profession.

I don’t know if the dogs noticed that I was in school this year, because most of the work was done online. They can’t tell the difference between schoolwork and the writing I actually want to do. Or if they can, they haven’t told me. The real difficulty, for them, will come in August when I start going to my internship two or three days a week, and I’m not home for their midday walk. Hopefully, Grandma will be home for lunch and they will not notice the difference, but naptime may be delayed and that will, of course, be horrifying.





Now that I’m free to return to my own writing for the summer, though, it feels like I’m jumping off a cliff. Fiction is unfamiliar terrain again, after being immersed in academic writing all year. I’ve heard people call it code switching, when you talk (or write) differently depending on your audience, but I don’t transition easily, and part of me is afraid that if I let myself fall back into fiction this summer, I’ll have to relearn a whole year’s worth of tropes when school starts again in August.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been collecting so many rejections for my writing over the past few years. The rejections, and the reality they laid bare, that my writing could not be relied on as my career, is what led me to social work school in the first place. But being in school feels like I’m validating those rejections, and saying that I never was that good to begin with. And I’m afraid that if I write something I’m proud of, I’ll want to send it out, to literary magazines and agents, and it will be the same horror all over again. I hate that the publishing industry has gotten me so defeated that I’m afraid to write any more novels. I’m angry that I can’t see a way forward, and to protect myself I seem to have shut myself down.

I’ve been working on blog posts, of course, and articles for my synagogue newsletter, which have given me an opportunity to practice my interviewing and research skills, and to get to know people better and offer something to my community. But I want to write novels. I want to be a writer, not a social worker, not a reporter, not a do-gooder. I want to tell MY stories. The gulf, between my social worker self and my writer self, is getting wider instead of smaller, and my resentment at becoming a social worker is growing.

I need to find a way to survive the process of becoming a social worker, because I really do want to help people; I want to hear their stories and find ways to relieve their anxiety and confusion, at least a little bit. I want being a social worker to develop into something (almost) as satisfying as being a dog mom. I mean, sure, I get annoyed when the girls wake me up early from a nap, or bark incessantly and refuse to tell me why, but mostly I feel shaped and calmed by taking care of them. It’s a set of rituals and a relationship that I rarely take for granted, and I rely on them heavily for my sense of self, and structure, and love.




The oxytocin rush alone is staggering.


About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

136 responses »

  1. A huge congrats on finishing your first year of grad school (I start mine in August). You are a gifted writer with the ability to address varying emotions/subjects with proficiency and capture the readers interest. Case in point – this post where you wrote of your frustration with school yet later flowed into the animal arena without missing a beat. Not everyone can accomplish that Rachel. I’m not a writer but I am a voracious reader and for someone to incorporate polar opposite emotions in an entry that blends so beautifully really is a gift. As for school, someone above posted they experienced many of the feelings you expressed while earning their degree in nursing; I also felt similar emotions while studying nursing. Several times I did internal reality checks to see if I was on the same planet with the professor etc. because I often felt as if I was sitting in a classroom meant for an entirely different degree. Ancient Greek perhaps. Upon graduation however I found my niche which for the most part has served me well. Should life take a turn in the future and your career is that of a writer, you still will have a great sense of accomplishment at the degree you EARNED. Personally I think your empathy, faith, expressing self doubt, desire to help others and love of animals all meld together perfectly to give you a window into the complexity yet wonderful world called life.
    Oh yes almost forgot – doesn’t hurt to tip toe into self publishing. A fellow hiker self published after he hiked the AT with his dog a few years ago and for a first time effort, did rather well.

  2. Please don’t give up on that novel, Rachel. We writers must keep the faith–or find the faith! Everything you do, including grad school in social work, builds your craft. I love your writing, and look forward to every post.

  3. You write it, I’ll read it; Novel or whatever it may be of!

  4. Congrats on the first year. Academic social work is very different than the real work. The beauty of the profession is how broad it is. But the ideology guides the practice throughout.
    I’ve spent 37 years in it so far and have a few more to go. With persistence you’ll find your niche. With social work and with writing. Enjoy the summer.

  5. I commend you for your resolution to explore different options for your life. I also hope you will give yourself permission to enjoy the summer break, take naps at the appropriate time with your dogs, and write what you want to. I am reading the letters of May Sarton and am amazed at how difficult her writing career was for her all her life. Sometimes I laugh at her comments about the publishers who rejected her and the teaching positions she lost – she never quit. I think that must be the same secret for writing as it is for social work or, as in my case, becoming a CPA fifty years ago. Just do it, and then hope you don’t decide after forty years you might have made the wrong choice.
    Best wishes – I have faith in you!! 🙂

  6. Social work will surely bring a host of new stories to your life – and mind, Rachel. In fact, I see it as a perfect start for your writing career!

  7. I began posting less because my time fills so quickly these days. I spent most of my adult life in grad school, and I know the transition to something else is difficult. I think you might find over time that one activity informs and complements the other, however.

  8. What is it in the social work theory that doesn’t quite click for you? Worth working out what it is.

  9. Your writing story is more the rule than the exception. I believe that we should write because we want to do it and enjoy doing it. It’s a sure way to depression to hang your hopes on mainstream recognition. And hardly anyone makes a decent living from writing. Most people have to earn their living some other way and I think that’s a good thing because it keeps you real, especially if yours is a people profession.You do write well, as commentators above have said, and it surprises me if you have had so many rejections. Maybe you aren’t targetting the right publications. Have you submitted guest posts to other blogs that deal with the same issues that interest you?

  10. Here’s what I thought immediately while reading about your social work. That your disconnect is what you share with the people who will benefit your social work training.

  11. Laura McDaniel

    I like seeing all the support (we) readers are giving you. It’s all true – you do have a great writing skill, and as noted, don’t rely on the mainstream publishing world (as you know, several great novels & movies) have come from books/writings that were not meant to ever get published and were self-published. As far as your social work, MK said it perfectly! Congrats on getting through school too.

  12. Congratulations! That is fantastic news. Your writing shows you are a caring and thougtful person that will share skills to benefit the world. On to your next successful year!

  13. Congrats, Rachel. You are going to make an incredible social worker. ❤

  14. Have you thought about self-publishing? It might be some work, but could be rewarding! I really like your writing style in your blogs, and think it would make for enjoyable reading ^_^

  15. Rachel, this post resonated so much with me! I am an unhappy lawyer (although I loved law school) who tried, as a way of extricating myself from the law-firm life, to become a mediator for over a year. It was something I thought I’d love but turned out did not resonate with my spirit, much like I suspect the social work paradigm has affected you. Do question if this is the right path for you before you invest more of your time and effort. But clearly one (if not THE) right path for you is writing. I haven’t read your fiction but your prose / essay style is fantastic: moving, amusing, insightful. Becoming a fiction writer is a dream I have had to abandon myself (or at least put on the back burner) because I know I will never reach the level of my favorite authors (and all my characters end up thinking and sounding like me!). But I’ve been taking great satisfaction from my blog, and now my dream has shifted somewhat, to becoming an essayist and maybe self-publishing my “best” stuff one of these days now that I’ve crossed the threshold of exposing my “stuff” to the world via my blog. Of course, I’ll never be as good as my favorites, David Sedaris and Cheryl Strayed, but as long I keep my genuine voice (and continue to expand my vocabulary!), maybe something I write will have resonance with someone else! Keep up the good work, Rachel. I certainly appreciate your blog posts.

  16. I was in “Social work ” for 8 years and I found it to be a positive creative spur. I had to think on my feet every day and that helped my idea factory.

  17. I had 150 rejection slips over 40 years before my first book was published. Don’t give up! And being a social worker might present the perfect story opportunity for you. Write what you know and don’t let “failures” tell you no. Discouragement is from our enemy, not God. Blessings.

  18. Hey Rachel – you definitely have a voice. I’m sure you’re thinking that, so far, all the doors you’ve found have been closed. But keep looking for that hidden window. That’s what happened to me. The best opportunities sometimes happen by chance. I’ve tried my hand at writing fiction, and found that I could tell an entire story, but have serious problems with dialogue.
    Have you ever told a story from the perspective of one the people you meet doing social work, but fictionalized? How they got there, what led them to your door; but it wouldn’t be to you, it would be to a character who happens to be a social worker?
    anyway, thanks for liking my own stories. Love the photos. (especially the one with one dog smiling and the other sticking her (his?) tongue out…) Fabulous!

  19. Maybe you’re suppose to write a children’s book about the kids, to warm up the publishers 😉


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