Lifetimes ago, I flirted with the idea of getting a master’s in social work. But I knew in my heart I was insanely bored by those “established” models and theories in thick, hardbound books: flow charts designed to explain away human behavior.  I like observing oddballs, not trying to fix them. So, nah.

I then decided that if I ever took the master’s plunge, it would have to be in a creative field. This conclusion ate its own tail, because why pay out the nose for an advanced degree that doesn’t subsequently increase one’s value in the job market, right?  (And didn’t I already learn that lesson with my undergraduate degree in theater performance?) So, nah.

Eventually, however, the fear of carrying a student loan was drowned out by a heart-scream, begging for a new chapter in my life. I applied to, and was accepted into the UCR Palm Desert low-residency program.  I would get my MFA in Creative Writing.

I knew going in that I was trailing far behind the pack in terms of my reading resume. I had read no more than three real books in the past ten years, one of which was a “Big Book.”

But I figured there are two types of people who pursue MFA’s in writing: those who are inspired by the works of the masters, and those who just love to write shit down.

I was, of course, the latter.  Even so, I still felt a bit inferior.

Anyone: Have you read…

Me: No.

Anyone: But I didn’t say which book.

Me: Well, if it’s not ‘The Road,’ by Cormac McCarthy, then the answer is ‘no.’ I haven’t read it.

But even more crippling than my embarrassingly small Goodreads profile was my incredibly thin skin. I could probably borrow several of the aforementioned “social models of human behavior” to get to the bottom of my extreme sensitivity, but, simply put, any criticism of my work sent me into a spiral of despair, which was then pounded even further by soul-sized waves of unworthiness.

What? That paragraph didn’t rock your universe? Fine. Doesn’t matter, anyway. Because I quit. (Again.)

I would then announce that writing wasn’t really my thing after all. Writing was just a red herring. My real destiny? Rock star.

Yep. I needed to surrender to a life of rock and roll.

Having course corrected, I would dig my electric guitar out of storage. Is this it? Nope. That’s my bass guitar. Well, the little bass. And there’s the big bass.  And there’s The Acoustic. And there’s the Other Acoustic.

Ah. Found it! The Electric One. Much easier to play than The Acoustic. Tick, tock, Gledhill.

Unless… unless I really was supposed to be an actor, after all?

Well, I could ponder that while I looked for my connector thingy that went from my amp to my guitar.

I would make sure at least one of my three guitar tuners still worked. I could just duct tape the batteries into it, since none of them still had a lid to the battery casing. Oh, snap. This one isn’t even a guitar tuner. It’s a metronome! Good to know.

Then, while tuning my ax, I would remember that one of the reasons for my unsuccessful career in music  (thus far) was that I had never owned a proper humidifier for The Acoustic.  (The stoner guy who was teaching Guitar 2 at Old School Town of Folk Music was pri-tty mad that I didn’t have one.) I’ll go ahead and order one tonight on Amazon. Now is the time. Oh, and a guitar hook for the wall. So Bad Ass.

I would make a commitment to myself: No turning back, this time. I would finally learn to play the guitar, and give my Muse a voice with which to sing songs and say some stuff.

Well, I really only need to learn enough chords to birth the songs out of me. I’ll let real musicians have at them, once I get them on their feet.

G chord. C chord. G chord.

Hm. This sounds so good! It’s amazing what you can do with distortion pedals. Everyone makes it seem so hard, but then you take Guitar 2 at Old Town School of Folk Music and you realize that all the best songs are, like, four chords.

Hmmmm. Where is that folder with the Old Town sheet music, anyway?  I loved playing that one Oasis song. The big hit.  Where did that folder get to? I think it was manila…

And so it would go for a week. Or less. Inevitably, the rock star charade would end when I would catch a glimpse of my hands, and, once again, accept that God had stuck five toes onto the outer radius of my palms, where most people have fingers.  And I would once again surrender to the fact that I would never be able to play all those chords in those books that people with real hands can play.

Anyway, guitar is hard. There’s math.

And once again, I would find myself in front of the glowing face of the Airbook, trying to remember what had sent me bouncing into that sizzling nutfarm where  inmates tend to overgrown crops of Escapism, Procrastination, and Denial. How had I ended up there? Again?

And then: Oh yeah. Someone said my writing wasn’t perfect.

So, in September of 2011, I knuckled up to the task at hand:  becoming the best writer I could possibly be.  (Which, frankly, is every bit as hard as guitar. But at least, with writing, my fingers are long enough to type all the letters. And there is almost no math.)

Then, two years into the two-and-a-half year MFA program, the miracle happened.

After six consecutive months of having my work publicly burned at the stake, my painfully thin skin melted off. I’m not even sure exactly when it happened, but my ego became a wispy pile of ash whirling into the corners of my apartment and then out the door. Tiny ego tumbleweeds rolling here and there, there and here, until it was (almost) all gone.

And underneath the rubble of self-flagellation I discovered a shiny nugget of truth:

It’s all good. And even when it’s not, it doesn’t matter, because I’m gonna do it anyway. I’m just always gonna write stuff. And if, someday, the criticism burns again, I am just gonna have to figure out a way to get through it. Because I’m never going to stop writing. Because I can’t.

Hence, the greatest gift of my MFA was the liberation of my creativity from the shackles of my own ego. That alone will be worth the monthly stab of a student loan payment.

As I see it, $40,000 (pre-interest) was the cost of my first wedding. I am in love, and ready to take the plunge. I am committed to sharing my life with the blank page, for better or for worse, ‘til death do us part.


J.A. works, naps, and watches her Roku in Chicago, IL. She writes for ChicagoNow.com under the slightly misleading moniker “Old Single Mom.” She damn near has her MFA from UCR Palm Desert’s low-res program, and lives with a 5 year old son who would prefer that she only use the term “dynamite,” to describe him.  J.A. is currently working on  “The Branson Novel,” but so what, right? Everyone is working on something, man.