Friday, August 24, 2012

A "Real" Writer

Two months ago I announced to my senior pastor (who also happens to be my boss), that I would be leaving my job at the end of the calendar year. A month later I informed the director of the Board of Youth (who happens to be my boss as well), and two weeks ago it was announced to the rest of the congregation. I had been wrestling with the decision for over a year. It seemed that the longer I stayed at St. Stephen the more attached I got to the security and comfort of having a decent job with a flexible schedule, health benefits, and a retirement plan. Youth directors make no large sum of money, but I brought in enough to cover my rent and groceries, to pay off my student loans and make progress toward owning my car. I was getting to know the people in the congregation and to form relationships with the youth, and all of that is fine and good, especially if you enjoy eating cookies, drinking Starbucks, and coming into work at 11:00 am. But when your major job tasks seem more like a nightmare than an adventure and the highlight of your week is the article you write for the church newsletter, it may be time to change professions.So after three years of post-graduate wandering, I've finally decided to apply to grad school, and now that I've made that known, there's no backing out. It's like signing up for a marathon. I can start training on my own with the best of intentions, and if it my knees and I decide we really don't have the time for this, I can always back out and justify that decision to myself. But once other people find out that I've paid $50 to put my body through hell I really have to show up and run those 26.4 miles, or at least give it my best shot.The past few weeks I've been reading through MFA (Master of Fine Arts) websites, stalking various writing instructors, and attempting to come up with the necessary application materials (a statement of purpose (SOP), letters of rec, and the all-important writing sample). When I read through the accomplishments, honors, and awards of program directors and participants it makes me want to lower my ears, turn my head, and walk away with my tail between my legs. And the application questions serve only to remind me of my insufficiencies: Who are the major literary influences in your life and work? In which journals and magazines have you been published? What honors, grants, or award have you received?You know, if I was a published, networked, successful writer I wouldn't be applying to MFA programs. Who are my literary influences? Oh you, know C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Lauren Winner and whoever else I've come across in the past few years. Pretty much everyone inspires me, or else no ond does I think a truer statement would be that everyone I read intimidates me. What am I reading? Well, I'm currently in the middle of a Christian book on vocation and am still stuck somewhere in the third chapter of Dorian Gray. Seeing as I've never read a book by Oscar Wilde I thought it was high time. It's just too bad that book is in California right now. The last book that I finished? What was the last book I finished? The Hunger Games? Now that's just sad. What honors or awards have I received? I think I was the most improved player on my middle school volleyball team, and I had a poem included in the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans when I was in sixth grade.The honest truth makes me wonder if I'm actually a "real" writer or if I've just been posing as one ever since I graduated from college. I don't have a novel that I've been working on for the past three years or a laundry list of short stories that I'm submitting to Ploughshares, The Atlantic, or The Paris Review. I didn't even know what those were before I started this application process. I'm not a published professional and I haven't appeared in any articles on up and coming writers. Isn't there a school out there looking for someone like me? A hard-working twenty-something who loves words, lives for experiences, and writes to inspire, amuse, and delight? Doesn't anyone want to take a chance on someone who doesn't have loads of experience sending query letters and consorting with publishers?I've read articles and interviews from published authors who didn't begin writing until late in life and who now give readings and appear at book signings. I am inspired by their success and encouraged to pursue my own dreams and ambitions, but in the back of my mind I wonder if they would have gotten into any of the MFA programs I'm applying for. I'm certainly beginning to wonder if I will.Jane Anne Staw (an instructor at one of the programs I'm considering) has penned, “If you sit down each day and write, no matter how little, you are a real writer.” Those words not only incline me to move her program to the top of my grad school list, but also reassure me of my value and the value of my work, regardless of our publication status. I may not be seasoned or popular, but I am still a writer, and I will continue to be one even if I don't qualify for one of the eight spots open for Creative Non-Fiction. Come tomorrow I may feel differently, but for today it is enough.  

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dream a Little Dream

As a youth ministry coordinator (this is my new title), I often end up leading some level of Bible class on Sunday morning. Last Sunday it was senior high. At the start of class we had a "guest adult" come in and tell the kids a bit about her background, family, interests, etc. It's a part of an initiative that the Board of Youth is taking to foster more interaction between the adults and students in the congregation. So far it's gone pretty well, but that's beside the point. At the end of her introduction, Stacey asked each of the students to answer the question, "What dream(s) do you have?" For one it was going to college and majoring in something business-related. Another just wanted to finish high school. A third hoped to find a way to travel for a large part of her life. 
When the girl to my left finished sharing her dream I allowed for a brief pause before the question came to me. Just as I was about to answer, Stacey moved onto the student on my right, "And what about you, Addy? What kind of dream do you have?" she asked. 
I was surprised and a little disheartened that I had been passed over. "What about me?" I said with mock indignation. "Don't I get to have a dream?" Stacey quickly apologized. "Oh, I didn't mean to skip you. I just thought, well, that you're an adult."
"Well, sometimes I think so too," I retorted, "but does that mean I don't get to have a dream?"
I went on to briefly share that I thought someday I would like to publish a book, that being a published writer was something I had dreamed of since I was maybe ten years old. 

When I was in college (and even when I was in high school) I was simultaneously inspired and frustrated by the number of times I was asked, "So, what do you want to do after you graduate?" Or worse "What do you want to do with your life?" I should have taken it as an opportunity to dream, but usually I ended up stressed out over the fact that I didn't really have a satisfactory answer and therefore could not meet the inquirer's expectation, and I hate when I can't meet expectations. 

I finished undergrad in May of 2009 and didn't really stop hearing that question until I moved to Kansas City and started working at St. Stephen 18 months later. An interesting thing happens once you settle into life in "the real world." People stop asking you what you want to do or who you want to be. Sometimes because they don't care, but often because they assume that you're already doing it. If I were to take a poll, I would wager that 75% of the members at St. Stephen believe that I like being a youth director, that I've always wanted to be a youth director, and that I will continue to be a youth director for many years to come. About 20% of the members still don't know who I am, and then another 5% know the truth. That I actually fell into this job by happen chance. That I've been trying to get myself overseas since January of 2010, and I don't really know what my future holds.

Why is it that once we leave high school or college and settle into a job or career that so many of us we stop encouraging one another to dream? Isn't that rather detrimental to the creativity, happiness, and vitality of our society? Sometimes our dreams change - perhaps we exchange the dream of being a wildlife photographer in order to birth children or invest ourselves in a non-profit or a small business. But other times we just give up. 

Maybe dreaming is too hard, or maybe it's too risky. Dreaming requires hope and hope is a fragile thing. Fragile things break, and we fear that we will break along with them. What if...? we ask. What if the dream doesn't happen? What if it fails? What if I put my heart and soul and spirit into something that never comes to fruition? What if, indeed.

Later that day I returned to Stacey's question and reflected on my answer. If I really wanted to publish a book why wasn't I doing anything about it? What did I expect? That the editor of a well-known literary magazine would check out one of my better blogposts and send me an e-mail begging for a submission? Did I think that one day I would just decide to stop spending my free time playing Words With Friends and checking Facebook in order to put ideas down on paper? Was this really something that I dreamed? Or was it an easy out? A dream so far off and distant that it didn't actually require my present hope?

I decided that some of my inaction had been out of ignorance, some of it out of apathy, and the rest of it out of fear. Fear that pursuing a writing career would mean facing very real and possible failure. Then I thought about the students that I work with. The ones who dream of being nurse anesthetists and travel writers and professional baseball players and Kindergarten teachers. How could I encourage them to pursue their dreams, when I've spent the past two years denying my own?

I decided that maybe it was time to make some changes. To pursue something that I was afraid might never come to fruition. To hope for something so big that it could fail, and it probably will the first and second and third time that I try. But if I never try, how will I know?

It is good to have dreams, but it isn't enough just to have them if they don't make a difference, if you never make any action toward realizing them. So today, I am taking small steps, beginning with the completion of this blogpost, which I started 3 weeks ago. As soon as I hit the "Publish" button I will go back to a piece of writing that I've been putting off for most of the day. It isn't very ambitious, but we all need to start somewhere.