Lately, everything around here has been a growing pain. I’m just completing my MFA in Creative Writing at Hollins University—just finishing two transformative years, two years in which I’ve written and read and cried and grown far more than I ever anticipated. Two years of constant change, of change being the only constant, and now that’s about to change, too. For months, I deny it, but then the acknowledgment begins.
It starts one rainy March morning, as I drive to the annual spring literary festival—my last before graduation. I’m thinking about previous Lit Fests: in 2013, when I was just visiting, admitted but uncertain; in 2014, as a first-year, with my thesis due date still a year away; now, in 2015, about to take my comprehensive exams, turn that thesis in, and graduate; the next times I attend will be as an alum. I’m passing a slowpoke sedan when it hits, that thunderbolt moment, though the clouds bear down only rain: graduate school is over for me, and my eleven classmates. Soon, we’ll have our degrees. Soon, many of my friends will be leaving town.
I speed up, the rain blurring my windshield, and put the wipers on high. The mountains look like they begin just at the end of the highway, though I know they’re really miles and miles away. Fog curls around them, obscuring the peaks and nuzzling up against their bases. By the time I leave 581, a few miles down, the Blue Ridges are almost totally gone, hidden under a blanket of fog.
I’ve been listening to Peter Wolf’s Sleepless. On the exit ramp, I turn the sound up and go back to the first track. Shaky nerves, baby, got the best of me / I need a shot of somethin’ much stronger than tea. I drum my fingers against the steering wheel. Last literary festival as a student. Last couple of months to work exclusively on my writing for who knows how long. Everything around here is a growin’ pain.
I mope through the morning’s reading, a moving excerpt from a visiting professor’s memoir. During a break, my roommate says she thinks she has forgotten the flash drive with her thesis on it at home, but isn’t positive; I drive her back, speeding along the highway I’ve just left. Sleepless plays through while my roommate thinks out loud about where her flash drive could be. I strain my ears for the music:
I've been swept and kept up all night
Sometimes I didn't rest at all
I've been shifted, lifted up sky, waited on a waterfall
I know sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it's rough
I just can't seem, girl, to get enough
I said never (never) oh, never (never) never like this before
Wolf’s blues album is about love, yes, but it could also be about transition, for what is love if not a sea change? What is spending years dedicated to art if not love? Never like this before could apply to the last two years of my life: to moving six states south, to dedicating years to that risky thing called writing, to a big breakup, to friendships made and friendships somehow twisted into something unrecognizable, to small successes and bigger doubts. I’m just one of the twelve writers leaving the Hollins MFA program this year; the other eleven have stories greater and more complex than mine. All of us have had experiences over the last two years that have made us shake our heads and think, never like this before.
Flash drive found, my roommate and I head back to campus. I put “Run Silent, Run Deep” on as I drive my Subaru past Carvin’s Creek. A family of ducks swims in the water. All the rain has heightened the creek, made it spread out around the bases of trees that are normally dry. I pout around my office for a while, then meet a professor for lunch.
We sit in a corner of the dining room while my friends and other faculty fill long tables, chatting with the visiting writers. I’ve been drowning in doubt lately; my novel’s too long, it’s never going to get published, my classmates are better writers than I am. All writers know these thoughts—managing them is part of our job. But when they hit me, they hit, surging and rushing until I can’t hear myself think.
My brilliant and gracious professor pulls me out of the slump. Sometimes, I think I just need validation, and the professor says what I need to hear. She tells me to let my novel be long. She tells me that what I’m doing is good, that it’s important. Over at the next table, my friends laugh with Charles Baxter. I wish I was there, learning from him, but what I’m hearing now is what I need. I go into the afternoon’s readings heartened, my fog starting to lift.
A few hours later, I leave campus. The rain has stopped, and the afternoon has misted over, damp but no longer chilly. “Oh Marianne” comes on: The world is a sad place / so put on a brave face / and dance. I feel braver, ready to finish this draft and to go out into the world beyond school.
As I get on 581 for the fourth time, I fill my car with the sounds of “Nothing But the Wheel”: I’m holdin’ on, holdin’ on, holdin’ on, holdin’ on. The next two months will pass too quickly, I know. And, after that, I don’t know what I’ll be doing, or what my writing life will look like, or where my friends will be.
The mountains, now in my rearview mirror, open back up. The day unfolds like an album, nervous first, then despairing, then, finally, lifted up. The final eponymous song of Peter Wolf’s album ends with the first line, a circle completing, but also different this time around: I’m still sleepless. Still sleepless, yes. I’m still doubting, still scared, but the afternoon is bright.
I play Sleepless after every transitional moment for the rest of the semester. After my last tutorial; after turning my thesis in; after sitting in a professor’s home for the last time before she moves and most of my classmates do, too; after my last Friday afternoon office hours and my first big this-is-ending-and-I’m-going-to-miss-it-desperately cry. Mostly, I replay “Growin’ Pains” and “Nothing But the Wheel,” but I sometimes flip through the tracks, waiting to see what speaks to me. Often, Peter Wolf’s lyrics bring an unexpected wisdom—guidance I didn’t know I needed until I hear it.
I’ve spent the last two years in the company of the eleven brilliant writers in my cohort. I’ve also been lucky to know the eleven who graduated the year before us, and the twelve who will graduate in 2016. Thirty-four talented, wise, generous, brave people. What I’ve learned from them is countless.
Two years writing is two years of risk, of failure and trying again. It changes you—how can it not? Two years focused inward, but also looking always outward, learning about the world and about myself. I’m a better writer and person because of this experience, because of my classmates and faculty. They’ve given me the wisdom I didn’t know I was seeking, told me it’s okay to sit in uncertainty. Maybe we’re all only holding on to nothing but the wheel, but what a good wheel it is: steady, bringing us back, always back—if we want—to each other, and to language.