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Alumni Day

            I graduated with my MFA in fiction thirteen years ago, and I’ve never been to any of the Alumni events held by the school. First of all, it’s too expensive to fly to North Carolina and stay in a hotel and pay tuition. Second, I’ve been busy with other things for the past few years: taking psychology classes, then working on my MSW, and now teaching. But, to be honest, even if I could have made the time, or afforded the trip, I was too scared to go. I didn’t want to face people who had made more of their writing careers, or their teaching careers, or their editing and publishing careers than I had. I can barely keep my ego ticking as it is, and I was afraid that going back into that environment with so little to show for myself might crush me.

“You’re so melodramatic.”

            This year, because of Covid, the alumni programming was planned for Zoom, or something like Zoom. It would just be for one day, and free, and easy to get to, but I was still reluctant to go. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know that many people, and I was afraid that I would see people I did know, and didn’t really want to see again, but most of all, I was afraid that I would fall into a shame spiral, comparing myself to other people and how brave they are, and how persistent they’ve been, and how confident they are about their right to be heard. I was also afraid that the intellectual snobbery thing – we write literary fiction – would leak all over me and make me feel shitty, and my ego strength would return to where it was when I was in that school, and I would fall off an emotional cliff.

Given all of that, it was hard to understand why I was even considering going to this thing. It felt like some perverse way of testing myself, to see if I’ve changed in the past fifteen years. But I also felt guilty for not pushing myself to go to any of the previous years’ events, and missing out on the possibility that someone or something at one of those reunions could have helped me build my writing career. I don’t think I’ve ever really healed from the writing workshops in graduate school: the jealousy, the demeaning quality of the criticism, the conformity of the standards, the daily reality that everything is a competition for scarce resources… That’s why when I run writing workshops now, I try hard to make them therapeutic and welcoming and non-competitive, because my own experiences in writing workshops were so much the opposite.

            But then there was the boy. I think of him as a boy because we were both so immature when we met in graduate school. He’s off on his own track now, married with kids and a good job, and I’m still me. I wanted to see him, but only if he was going to smile at me and be happy to see me; I didn’t want to see him if he was going to pity me, or look down on me. And I didn’t even know if he would be there.

            Maybe most of all, I wanted to see if this one day return to graduate school could help me restart my confidence around trying to get published. I’ve been steely-eyed about making sure I get a blog post written each week, no matter what other responsibilities come up, but I haven’t been as strong-willed in the past few years about working on and sending out my other writing projects.

            It’s just so freaking hard to ignore the rejections.

“I accept you, Mommy!”

            I finally filled out the registration form for the Alumni event, thinking I could still decide not to go at the last minute. I chose a few sessions to go to, and gave myself permission to leave sessions early, or go to more of them, depending on how things went.

            I woke up early on Alumni day, well, earlier than I wanted to, and went to my first event in the living room. The timing of the first session was lucky, because I had my regular phone call with my therapist scheduled for right afterwards. That safety net was reassuring. I flipped through multiple screens looking for faces I might recognize, and then I checked the participants list. I saw a few familiar names from the school Facebook group, but not many from my time in the program, so I took a break for a few minutes, paced the floor, watched some terrible news, and then went back to the computer for a reading by one of the graduates from my time who’d been more successful than me. And I survived. The therapy break right afterwards was a relief, though, and then there was a writing workshop that felt more like a literature class, which is not my thing, and then I slept through a panel I’d wanted to go to, on book promotion, because I was exhausted from all of the zooming by then.

“Can I go back to sleep?”

            To make up for missing the Book Promotion panel, I forced myself to go to the first few minutes of the final event, an Open Mic, despite not having it on my to-do list ahead of time. I actually tried to stay for a while and support my fellow alumni but I couldn’t seem to sit still anymore, and I wanted to start writing this blog post, because I couldn’t really be sure what the day had meant to me until I could look at it in squiggles on the page.

             I was disappointed not to see the boy; maybe he’d gone to one of the sessions I’d skipped, or maybe he was too busy, or maybe he was just as afraid of returning to graduate school as I was, or maybe he was afraid of seeing me. And I was disappointed that I didn’t recognize many of the other alumni on the screen, and that my impulse to send out my work was still in snooze mode. I was disappointed that Alumni day hadn’t turned out to be a great step forward in my life, or a chance to confront deep dark old wounds, or get a great idea for a new book, but, the good news was that I didn’t fall into a shame spiral either. I’d given it a try, and then I’d listened to my discomfort and my own point of view, and I let myself shrug it off. That wouldn’t have been possible fifteen years ago, or ten, or even five. I was able to hear the old thoughts pass through my mind – you’re not trying hard enough to fit in, you’re not the right kind of writer, you don’t deserve success because you don’t know how to give people what they want – and I picked up each old thought like a Daddy Long Legs in the bathtub and I set it aside. And that was it.

            It was an anticlimactic experience, but, in its way, it was a significant step forward for me. I said yes to something that scared me, I gave it a try, and then when it didn’t work out, I was able to just let it go. And then I took the dogs out for a walk, wrote the first draft of this blog post, and watched a Hallmark movie, or two. Not such a bad day after all.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?         

The Gossip Couch

Dogs love gossip. They collect their gossip by sniffing pee puddles and seeking out the butts of other dogs for important information. This one’s in heat, that one just had puppies, the other one had pizza for lunch, this one and that one had playdate in a yard filled with something stinky. Dogs do not care about world news. The whole idea of world news would just seem silly to a dog. Their minds are completely local. Neighborhood news, family news, that’s what they want.

Cricket and Butterfly sniff in with each other regularly.

Cricket and Butterfly sniff in with each other regularly.

Cricket's traditional news-gathering pose.

Cricket’s traditional news-gathering pose.

We believe that it is important for us to know what’s happening in the country, and in the world at large, so we teach ourselves to read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or listen to Public Radio, or watch CNN, but it takes time and effort to build up a tolerance for serious news. Gossip, on the other hand, is a natural instinct. I remember people whispering to each other in nursery school, about who was a poopy pants, and who still needed a sippy cup. The idea that we get much more excited to find out what our neighbors are doing with their free time than about the latest government snafu, is embarrassing to us, but to dogs, it’s a given.

My last graduate program was a low residency writing program. We’d go to campus for a week at a time, twice a year, and then the rest of the work would be done online, from home. But that one week was packed with gossip. Of course there were lectures and readings and writing workshops, but there was also drama and intrigue and a lot of alcohol. I’m not much of a drinker (or not a drinker at all) but watching how other people act when they are drinking can be very entertaining.

Every night after dinner, and more student readings, some people would head out to the same bar, the one closest to campus so we could all walk there. For most of the residencies, I went back to my room and got work done and maybe went out once or twice during the week. But at my last residency there was no work to do, and no workshops to go to, because I was there to graduate. I committed myself to going to the bar, every night, to people watch. But my favorite part of the night was getting back to the dorms, and sitting on the gossip couch, catching up on what everyone else saw at the bar. Many people forgot that they were married, and forgot to take their meds, and forgot that they were there to write, and therefore provided quite a lot of material for the rest of us to chew on.

Whenever the most recent returnee from the bar got off the elevator, we had to question him or her about the latest news, and each subsequent arrivee was drunker, and better informed.

Yes, gossip can be mean, and cruel, and about feeling superior to the other guy, but it’s also about feeling connected to the actual world you live in, to the day to day people you interact with. Sharing personal news and knowing what’s going on in our community makes us feel grounded and connected and a part of the world, instead of separate from it. I hate when everyone else seems to know something and I’m on the outside. And sharing gossip with someone, especially if it is juicy gossip, can bond you, as if you are showing your vulnerable belly to that friend, admitting you care about such things.

People use the word “gossip” as a judgment against particular pieces of news. It means, your news is petty compared to the important news of the day. We know so much about what’s going on in the world, that it’s hard to place importance on our own lives within that enormous picture. But gossip can fix that. Gossip focuses in on all of those small details in our daily lives, it focuses on us, and our friends and enemies. It reminds us that we matter too. However small we may seem in the larger, worldwide, scheme of things.

Cricket and Butterfly gossip with each other all day. Butterfly sniffs Cricket’s ear, Cricket sniffs Butterfly’s butt, they listen to the birds and the neighbors and share significant looks. They know that this one smokes and that one’s on a low carb diet and the other one eats too many onions. They know which dogs have personality problems and which cats hide behind which bushes. They keep track of the comings and goings of the squirrels and the birds and the neighbors and the mailman. It’s like a twenty-four-hour-a-day soap opera with all of the repetition and long drawn out dramas you would expect from a daily serial. And they love it.

News-gathering must be done, no matter the weather.

News-gathering must be done, no matter the weather.

Butterfly checks in with the print media, when she can.

Butterfly checks in with the print media, when she can.

I try to remember this when I’m writing and start worrying that what I’m writing about is too trivial compared to what someone else has written. We need the big and the small, the weighty and the trivial, to balance each other out and give us perspective.