If you ask my family and friends, or my MFA advisor, Leanna James Blackwell, if they ever doubted I would graduate, I bet they’d all say, “Linda?! I never doubted it for a second. She’s capable of whatever she sets her mind to.” Really? Don’t they remember how many times I almost quit?
When I applied to the program, I probably had not written more than 250 words on one topic in the thirty-plus years since graduating from college. The task to prepare a writing sample was daunting, and had me second-guessing myself and whether the program was really for me. How does someone with a very full, full-time job add a part-time job of graduate school? But my work in the MFA program let me develop the tools to write, in different ways for different purposes, so that I could build my confidence and find my voice.
Often, I wondered about my abilities. My classmates have been writing since childhood…will I ever write as well as them? On several occasions, I became frustrated with professors whose standards for how they did their job didn’t mesh with mine. If I knew how to do this, I wouldn’t be in school. Halfway through, I dealt with the challenges of a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy. Chemo brain is real…does this essay make any sense? Coming down the home stretch, I experienced an overwhelming lack of control and increased stress in my work situation due to the pandemic. How will I be able to turn in this assignment by midnight?
You don’t go back to school in your fifties without having people you can lean on. My greatest blessings—Don, Donald, and Mary support me on my life’s journey and have been with me through graduate school too. They never signed up for a master’s, but they were masterful at knowing just what was needed: doing laundry, preparing meals, checking in, and overlooking my distracted self on the many nights and weekends it takes to complete an MFA. I am grateful for my tribe: my family and friends, my running buddies, and my Bay Path community. Their support pulled me through.
In the MFA program, the Introduction to Publishing and Immersion in Publishing classes are designed to introduce writers to the publishing process. I loved all of it—establishing goals to create my writer’s path and writer’s contract, developing a blog site and then writing and posting to it, interviewing and writing about a publishing professional, following industry news and learning from industry professionals, creating and delivering presentations, and completing an internship.
Bellastoria Press, a small, hybrid publisher, hosted my internship experience. Bellastoria has published twenty-nine titles in fiction and memoir, as well as eight children’s picture books, from twenty-three authors. Like my classmates, I didn’t know what to expect as an intern. Yes, we were student interns, but as a 59-year-old working professional, I assumed my three internship mentors expected a certain level of business acumen, and in my case, marketing expertise. That marketing detail was what created anxiety for me. Yes, I have almost forty years of marketing experience, but none of it is in book marketing. I needn’t have been nervous though, because they all treated me as their peer, and seemed grateful for whatever I could bring during my time with them.
The Writer’s Path and Writer’s Contract I prepared in the publishing courses this year are meant to help us as students transition to our writing life in the “real” world, without the structure of a graded academic program. In mine, I committed to working with books, reading and writing most every day, transforming my thesis into a book, and maintaining a social presence in a community of writers.
I hadn’t planned to begin a new career at nearly sixty-years-old, but in February, I left my employer of eighteen years. Learning about book publishing, and specifically book marketing, has reminded me why the MFA interested me in the first place. I applied to the program six years ago with an interest in immersing myself in the book world. I’ve earned an MFA, now, I need to find or create a career that will allow me to use it.
Yes, that is a little scary. Actually, a lot scary. But so was participating in walk-to-run clinic and becoming a runner when I was forty-six, completing my first triathlon at age fifty, going back to school as a fifty-four-year-old, fighting cancer when I was fifty-six, and experiencing COVID-19 at fifty-eight. I took a chance when I started the graduate program. It was often uncomfortable. I had lots of doubts. I missed out on time with family and friends. Despite wanting to quit a handful of times, I pushed through my fears and the challenges that came my way, and always strived to do my very best—remembering this was my journey, no one else’s. It took nearly six years to complete a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction—but I did it.
On May 15th, I will put on my graduation cap with its 2022 tassel, and graduation gown with its master of fine arts hood, and receive my Bay Path diploma. I am excited as I turn the page to my next chapter. The people who know me best were right.