Breakaway.

Two years ago, I sat in a small seminar classroom up at UConn listening to one of our instructors for graduate school orientation go through the chapters we were assigned for the week.  The readings derived from book designed to get us acclimated to what was expected of us as burgeoning scholars; indeed, the subtitle was something along the lines of How to Build an Academic Career in The Humanities. 

I listened to her and immediately felt an icy grip of terror around my throat.  I had read in the book all about this so-called “tenure track position”, how difficult it was, and how it was the only thing any scholar with sense could be designed to undergo.  Basically, the chapters yelled to me, if I was worth anything as a scholar, I should only be going into graduate school with my eyes fixed on the tenure track position.  It then went on to outline how much of my life I should be devoting to my studies.  Which was, at that time, all of it.

I felt the iciness drip down into my chest and seize my heart as my fellow first-years asked clever, astute questions, as the realities of what I was actually going to be putting myself through for the next two years fell on my head like bricks.  I felt the band of my floral J.Crew skirt, picked so carefully that morning, tighten as my belly fluctuated with nerves.  I don’t belong here.  I don’t want tenure track.  I don’t want to give up my life.  I have a nephew I like to play with, and family in town I like to see on a regular basis, and friends, and all of that.  I don’t want to give up everything.  I just want to be a good writer.  

I realized through all of this foggy anxiety that my hand was in the air. Why was I asking a question? What the hell was my body doing?!  Clearly I was having a stroke.  I knew I smelled toast.  I was toast.  Oh god I’m going to throw up and die just let me die here in room 236 in CLAS LET ME DIE IN MY OWN THROW UP –

“Go ahead,” the woman said, kindly.  I took a deep breath.  I’m positive that to the rest of the group I looked fine, but in reality I was preparing myself for a surefire garrotting.  “I…” I coughed a bit.  Then it all came out.

“I was reading in the book the types of sacrifices you have to make in order to be in this line of profession, and the tenure track position and all of the things that entails and how it’s not something people should undergo, the whole graduate school thing, if they don’t want to eventually get tenure.  I was wondering if you had any insight for the rest of us, who…aren’t like that?  Because it freaked me out.” I laughed in that way people in movies laugh when they know they’re about to get shot.

A few heads snapped around.  Some registered confusion but I saw a lot of faces that expressed relief.  In their eyes I saw predicaments similar to my own.  I sat back, feeling the sweat that had started to form on my back create a sticky pad on my shirt, connecting it to my skin.  Flopsweat is probably not the best impression.

The professor nodded, and then said something I would take with me for the next two years.

“That is one person’s opinion about how your work should go.  You don’t have to do everything the book tells you.”

Four years ago last month, I moved to New York to be a working actress in the big city.  I thought that was what I wanted, because I had gone to school to be an actress and because the teachers in that school had told me this was what I was expected to do.  I had no backup plan, nothing in the works that would even be considered close to a failsafe.  I was just flying by the seat of my pants.  I had eyes wider than Malcolm McDowell’s in Clockwork Orange.  I was not prepared for what those wide eyes would be exposed to.

I was trying to do what I thought I was supposed to do.  Because from the age of 4, everyone had told me I was going to be on Broadway and be a giant superstar.  I would nod vigorously while, at the same time, that icy fear would grip the back of my neck in a chokehold.  I knew I wasn’t prepared enough.  I had passion, sure, and a freakish memory log of monologues and songs I could whip out.  I was also a fierce mimic.  But aside from a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and some musical theater experience, I truly had nothing.  I also didn’t want to be famous.  I just wanted to be creative.
  Even now, the thought of becoming ‘famous’ makes me nauseous.  I want to do well.  That’s it.

I stayed in New York for 6 months, and while that city is a blessing for many people, for me it was unholy.  I felt more alone than I ever have.  I developed crushing anxiety and when I moved back home I struggled with even getting on stage without having a panic attack.  I had gone against everything I thought I was supposed to do, and my body reacted with absolute shock.

That shock is gone, replaced by anticipation tinged with the smallest zips of fear.   “Fear is God saying pay attention, this could be fun.” – Craig Ferguson.

I am now paying attention.  Which, if you have ADD as bad as I do, is pretty momentous.

Tomorrow, some of the most brilliant people I know will be standing up in Gampel Pavilion receiving their graduate degrees.   I won’t be there.

I swear to God I’m done with my degree and everything worked out fine.  Scheduling with my summer job and my parents’ schedule made it difficult to get everything hashed out for attending the commencement. 

Sometimes things don’t work out according to plan.  But you might just get everything you ever wanted.

Don’t do what the book tells you.  Throw out the damn book.  Keating style.

O Captain, My Captain, our Fearful trip is Done.

ally

 PS.  You do have to give up a lot of your life to be a graduate student.  That was no joke.  But you have to have a life when you’re a grad student, and especially if you’re a grad student because you want to learn how to write better.  The inspirations will be all around you and you have to pay attention.  Constant Vigilance, as a wise Mad-Eyed man once said.  I actually have a more active social life now than I ever did before graduate school and that’s made me a ten times better writer and it cured me of some of my hermit tendencies.  SOME of them.

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3 thoughts on “Breakaway.

  1. I think I needed to hear this almost as much as you needed to write this. It is so easy to get lost in those “tenure track” pressures, and so easy to lose yourself and your place if you discover that track is not the one for you– from feeling like a failure, to professors being utterly confused when you don't want to do what they have done. Throw out the book. You are right, Ally, so right.

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  2. If it is any consolation, or validation, grad school is really the story of attrition. I have tenure (I'm 7-years post PhD), but I remember all too well that my grad cohort dwindled and dwindled till maybe only half of the folks I started with actually finished the PhD. Perhaps most of that number actually got a tenure track job after, but not all of them. The point is that many folks figure out that it wasn't what they wanted or that life is taking them in a different direction. It is common, in fact. I don't actually know why grad schools don't talk about this with first-years, about how common it is. I certainly do with my grad students. Maybe it is because they don't want to suggest the option of moving onto something else, since they know the fortitude that it will take to finish in the first place. Maybe it is because some professors don't want to invest the time in someone that won't stick around to be a prolific demonstration of their own hard work. Either way, that feeling that you got where everyone was dazed and glossy-eyed with the tenure-track mindset is true in a lot of places. But it doesn't need to be. And lastly, you don't have to give up your life for grad school or the tenure track job. I'm glad you saw that too. The contemporary generation of scholars (in their 20s and 30s) has changed this mold in my opinion since work-life balance makes for much better chi.

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  3. Congratulations on your success. (You were successful before during and after NYC, but sometimes it doesn't feel that way). Good luck on the next part of your journey.

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