Congratulations! Now what?

by Jeff Oaks

I was on campus today to meet the group of undergraduates Mark Kemp and I are taking to Edinburgh in June, through the Pitt in Scotland program.  It was exciting to see the ten students who up until now have only been names on a list. They all seemed full of excitement and the kind of optimism that makes teaching a deep pleasure.  If I begin posting articles about Scotland, Scottish poets, writers, and artists, don’t be surprised.  I hope, as part of my class, to create a blog for us, a place where we can post our experiences, insights, questions, and explorations. There will likely be photographs and videos. I hope to link it to this one. There’s so much to do still, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the to do list. One thing at a time, I remind myself.

After that initial meeting, I walked over to the English Department and ran into a couple of MFA students who were handing in their manuscripts, their last big official act. One of them asked me for advice. What now?

I shot back with a simple thing: “Keep Writing.” Because that’s the only thing I think that matters really. But of course that’s hard to do sometimes. You make time to write. And you need to know yourself, I guess I could have said. Some people don’t need to write everyday. Not everybody does. but if you’re someone who can easily get waylaid or distracted, who might get distracted for a long time, you might need to do it everyday.  At some point, I remember I added, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it,” by which I meant gather friends, make a writer’s group, join an online group, do whatever you have to do to keep the pen moving or the fingers tapping away at the computer keys.

It’s simple; you just keep writing. I have been fortunate to be able to do that. There are many ways to arrange your life so you can keep some space in which you can keep putting down words. There are tricks and prompts and exercises, whole books of them. Don’t be too proud to think you have to do everything on your own. Some friends of mine have stopped or given up or found out that writing was a tool that got them to one place and then they could leave it behind because it turned out it wasn’t as necessary to their lives as something else was. Some friends have come back to writing after a time away. Some have switched to photography or graphic work. Some have gone into business and raised families.

The trick to education isn’t that, after you’ve graduated, you’ll be discovered and raised up by someone else. Education gives you choice, if you’ve had a good education, because you know how to think. You still have to choose in a positive sense to raise the energy needed, find the necessary resourcefulness and will power within yourself, and make out of couch cushions and old blankets if necessary a space where you can think and dream and have arguments and make judgements and gather information and laugh out loud with joy when a sentence comes together.

I underestimated this ability when I graduated; many, many people can’t do some of the basic things writing teaches you, and a good education can teach you: how to listen without needing to immediately respond (it’s astonishing how few people can take in information without defending themselves immediately); how to read, both dispassionately and passionately; how to feel in ways that are complicated, that are not just the black or white, right or wrong system that many people have been frightened into thinking is the only way to think; how to sit and be patient with yourself while you work through a question or experience, translating it into words, into other words, seeing what parts of a narrative belong and which don’t and are part of another one, which ones feel true.

We all lie to ourselves, of course. But try not to.

When I think about why I kept writing, why I keep writing, I honestly don’t know the answer. I’m often tempted to chalk it up to luck–if X hadn’t happened to me at the right moment, if Y hadn’t helped me, if Z had said something. I don’t have a proper book. I’ve had friends say for decades that “this year will be the year your book will be taken…” and the year went by. I kept writing. There’s no isbn out there with my name on it. Around forty that absence of a book led me to a depression. Some days during that depression I just sat on the couch and watched tv. I waited for a voice to tell me to live or die.  I waited and waited and finally something in me said, there’s no voice coming. And I got up and started living again. You may go through that too. I wish you good luck with that. I recommend throwing the I Ching because it is on the side of stillness and patience.

Now what? Congratulate yourself! Take yourself out to dinner. Let friends throw you a party or throw yourself one. Buy a new shirt at the Goodwill and call it your writing shirt. Get a job somewhere. If you’ve got a project, great. If you don’t have a project after your thesis, don’t panic. Keep a journal for the first six months after you graduate. The time right after graduating is sometimes a little rocky.  Many kinds of support are removed, and you may fail and fail and fail to write for a while. Have fun with failure, will you? It has a great gift in it: you can be anyone you want as long as it’s present.  You can experiment and tickle yourself again with bad poetry and stories in which the narrator wakes up at the end and essays that are literally about picking your navel.

Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.