A Tragicomical, Unsophisticated Blog about the Weird, the Absurd, and the Banal

Saturday, September 1, 2012


This morning before he left, my roommate, the Viking, told me he and his fellow plant biology grad students were talking about plant volatiles. Volatiles are chemicals secreted by a plant when they are stressed -- like when a caterpillar is eating it. The chemical alerts helpful predators in the area to the plant's predicament, so a bird might come along and eat the offending caterpillar.

"So," the Viking said. "That smell of freshly cut grass is actually the cacophony of your lawn screaming in pain."

The things you learn when living with guy who reads biology textbooks for fun.


Last year I applied for six grad schools and was declined by all. After the initial embarrassment passed, I told a few friends and family and everyone said some variation on, "You know, you don't have to go to grad school to be a writer." This is no great comfort to me.

I'm a writer because I write. I don't expect two or three years of a grad program is going to transform me into a bestseller or award winning author. After I'm done, I'll probably find a job as a technical writer and that would suit me fine. In fact, that's basic the plan. I love writing and I'm not particular about form or content. I enjoy composing grants about as much as I enjoy writing stories.

Now I understand why people say they attend MFA programs to have more time to write. I worked full-time as an AmeriCorps member and now I have secured full-time employment again in St. Paul. Free time is precious. Writing time, even more so.

I'm far away from my workshop network. They're scattered throughout the country and world. The people whose opinions matter most to me have lives and have little opportunity to meet up at some mutually convenient location for a writing session or workshop.

After spending years toying with the idea, I have yet to actually try my hand at teaching. I have no idea whether or not I would be good at it, but I at least want to try. There's something deeply appealing about it, to me. Living in New Orleans, I helped put together and typically led a reading group called the Swimmers, which was the highlight of my week. I wasn't teaching -- we were peers -- but I got a kick out of guiding discussions and making notes to bring up particular subjects and I found that, after spending five years in literary analysis classes and workshops, I'm not half bad at it.

And, of course, I miss the academic environment. My job is intellectually challenging, I read all the time and write often. But there's a difference between having a personal library and easy access to an academic one, between a great Friday-night discussion on politics and literature and a class on contemporary world literature, between committing yourself to a life of learning and having the title "student." Well, here I'm being melodramatic. If you want an intellectual life you can live one.

So, no, I don't want to go to grad school to be a writer. I want to attend an MFA program because it would be a luxury. Because I've got unfinished business. Because I still hold out this small hope that I could teach and devote my working life to my passions: writing and talking about books with bibliophiles and writers.


New Orleans was a big city by my Iowan standards, but I've never lived in a place where I couldn't rely on my own two feet for getting around on a daily basis. It's still weird to me the ownership people feel over their bus routes. I was talking with a neighbor the other day who told me, "The 21A used to be my bus."

Three weeks ago, my first day at work, I took the 21A at 6:00AM (way too damn early, it turned out) and sat a few seats away from a woman hustling shots from a plastic bottle of gin. The other day, I sat across the row from a young woman telling a man, "I'm the most eligible bachelorette in town! I don't have diseases. I don't shoot up. I've got an apartment. Maybe if you factor in that I'm pregnant, I'm less desirable, but some people don't care."

LW told me a few days ago, "When I first got here, I used to hide behind a book when the crazies on the bus started acting up. Now I just watch and I'm amused. You should get some good material out of this."

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