I should be doing something. I don’t know what, but I can feel it. Something. I should be doing something. I wander from room to room in my small house. Maybe that’s something. I sit down. Pick up a book on the coffee table, leaving a perfect rectangle in the dust. Dust my entire house. Sit down again. Notice cobwebs in the corners of my living room.
It’s been about a month since I graduated with my MFA in Writing. The euphoria of spending time with friends or being able to watch a movie all the way through without the guilt of I should be working on my packet has worn off, along with the horror of realizing I hadn’t really cleaned my bathtub or met my nutritional needs in three years. Somewhere along the way, I had also become a borderline hoarder. I have since cleaned and organized my house. I boxed up the drafts of my creative thesis and critical paper, thinking that I would like to look at them someday, although I’m not sure why.
I have been moving through the past few weeks seeking normalcy, thinking I will find my way back to the days before I was accepted into this program. Instead, I feel restless and directionless. The only thing that has remained the same since beginning my MFA is my employment, which is a grainy memory of teaching courses at the local community college. That, and consuming vats of coffee. I still do that. But so much else has changed.
When I began my first year of the MFA, I was married with two stepsons. Now I’m alone and the back of my car has started to collect stickers that say things like, “My kids have four legs.” I have clutter to deal with, including the surfacing emotional clutter of a divorce that I was able, for the most part, to suspend for the duration of the program. These are the things I can no longer avoid.
The world seems familiar and even ordinary, but nothing is the same. I have added twenty hours or so back to my week, and now I have choices about what to do with that time. I’m not a wife. I’m not a stepmom. It’s about me now. Sit down at my desk. Sort piles. My bulletin board boasts plucky quotes from my mentors and allies.
I’ve accomplished something big. Taken a journey. One of a writer. Or becoming one. Comparing the three-year Rainier Writing Workshop (RWW) MFA with the mythical Hero’s Journey is perhaps a cliché, but as a teacher of writing and film, I can see that the cycle mirrors many of our experiences in this program that is meant to transform us and give us tools for a sustainable writing life.
The students of my cohort were called to their journey by RWW co-founder Stan Rubin—literally. His calls were and still are something of legend, and as he talked and talked and talked some more, it was clear I was beginning an adventure. During the first summer residency at Pacific Lutheran University, the adventure began as we collected our allies and guides, as well as our mentors. I returned home, asked for a divorce, and then dove headlong into eight packets, barely lifting my head enough to notice an empty house. The packet deadlines drove me forward as the keys of my laptop filled with crumbs and the remnants of meals eaten at my desk. My own home fell into disrepair, my lawn became field, and my refrigerator became merely a storage facility for condiments.
The second year was deceptive at first. With fewer packets, it looked like less work. But fewer deadlines meant a loss of momentum for some of us, which meant more self-discipline. The adrenaline of the first year wore off, and for me, I lost inspiration and wallowed in self-doubt. This self-doubt was the intestinal tract for me, the belly of the beast, and this uncertainty was echoed by others in my cohort. Career upheavals, divorces, and break ups seemed to daunt us, but, even with these challenges and the loss of momentum, we moved into the underworld with the coaxing of our classmates and mentors. My surfboard collected dust, my divorce papers were left unread, I placed a moratorium on dating, and I gave my dog a steady diet of rawhide treats as an apology.
But the darkness, for me, was tempered by the second year requirement of the Outside Experience, and in Bali1, I glimpsed a new possible future. I saw myself as a real writer for the first time.
The lessons, trials, and ordeals of the first two years are the training grounds for what we face in the third year and the deadlines for the critical paper and the creative thesis. For some of us, the thesis year is our greatest trial, but it is also where the transformation really takes place.
For me, the darkest hour occurred during a major overhaul of my critical paper. With the winter holidays right around the corner and two unplanned surgeries just behind me, I had to dig deep. I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend several nights crying and drinking too much. My mentor did her best to reassure me. Her message was simple: “Just keep going.”
So every night, I did just that—wrote. Kept going. I somehow finished the critical paper. Got a tattoo to mark the feat. Turned in my creative thesis. Got another tattoo. And as I prepared to attend the final residency, ready to graduate, I got yet another tattoo, marking a milestone that took three years to reach.
The final residency was a blur of tears, happiness, goodbyes, and gratitude. After graduation, my cohort and I returned to our lives. But what do our lives look like now? Things are familiar yet things have changed. Or maybe it’s me who has changed. I feel disoriented. I’m not even sure where to hang my diploma. I may or may not be moving soon or beginning a new career. There are many new unknowns. However, I do know that I’m not the same person I was when I began RWW.
I know I should be doing something. But what? This mantra haunts me as I organize every drawer and closet in my house. Surf. Reconnect with friends and family. Right before I had a moment of truth with my bathtub mold, it hit me. Yes! I should be doing something! Writing!
The program has succeeded in its mission. It created a writing life for me. It gave me the momentum, tools, inspiration, and motivation as well as a well-devised brain-washing that compels me to fill hours and empty pages with a new devotion to my writing life. I am doing something—writing—and the dirty dishes in the sink will have to wait.
Sydney Elliott (Class of 2015) is an English instructor at Tillamook Bay Community College in Oregon. She is a graduate from RWW with a creative thesis in nonfiction, and she has presented her research from her critical paper at the Community College Humanities Association’s national conference, where she was a recipient of the Regional Humanities Educator’s Award in 2014. She lives on the Oregon coast where she writes, surfs, teaches yoga, and hikes with her rescue dog Daisy.
1 Editor’s note: Sydney Elliott’s Outside Experience took her to a surf retreat in Bali. The experience helped shape her creative thesis, The Dive Reflex: A Memoir. The memoir follows Sydney’s journey with surfing as an adult survivor of childhood trauma, and the trip to Bali was her first time surfing in warm water as she is more used to the frigid waters of the Oregon coast.