The words from the message haunted me long after I shut my computer down. During the conversation, I had been able to show a disregard, a carefully calculated distance.
A new PhD program? Pfft. I was done with the academy. Over it. Moved on.
But later that night as I lay in that inbetweeness of sleep and awake, I started to make plans. I could retake my GREs. H wouldn't mind do some teaching jobs while I did my thing. Umberto would be old enough to do some babysitting if we had gaps. Surely I could juggle therapy and class schedules with a little magic. Only when I felt the tears starting to form did I snap myself out of this hazy dream world.
For a few days, I walked around with the heavy load of failure. I joke often that I am an academic failure but like most jokes this one has a stinger. If I had my PhD, I could rely on the evidence that on the impossibility of tenure especially for women. But I don't have that piece of paper that at one point represented to me the pinnacle of success. Instead, I was the person who couldn't even get her foot in the door for a more noble failure. When I told people that I was not accepted into a PhD program, I imagined that I could see in their eyes my own thoughts: She wasn't good enough. She wasn't smart enough. Of course time dulled some of these feelings, or at least help me push them into the background of my life.
As time puts distance between my academic past and me, I found myself still floundering. I no longer posted on my academic friends post and when I did I offered apologies for my ignorance. At some point, I stopped reading academic books because it felt like torture: launching myself into something I loved but from which I felt utterly disconnected. I no longer imagined myself as a free range academic because without a PhD and an institution no one was going to make my work seriously. I alienated myself and struggle through this gap of wanting and not wanting.
When I woke up the morning after that message exchange, I realized just what I had lost. There are few things I can list under what I believe. Belief is a horribly problematic word and concept. But I do believe that we humans are meaning make machines. All of us find ourselves constructed by stories, practices, and significations. Some of us have more power than others to shape those constructions of course but we all engage in this activity. Usually unawares. For the last few years, there is a part of my life that feels in stasis. Unconstructed. The part of myself that I saw as an academic was a part that had been built upon for many years. Boards laid in place through encouragement and amazingly enough rejection.
See, my original plan from the time I was ten or so was to be a writer. I tried my hand at publishing when I was in my 20s and like most early writers faced a landslide of rejection notices. When I was 23, I applied to the creative writing program at a local college. Not only was I rejected, I was rejected after receiving someone else's acceptance letter. After all these years, the feeling of joy when I read that I was accepted only to go on and realize the enclosed story wasn't mine still aches. I imagined this some other person sat at her kitchen table reading MY rejection letter. I remember when the head confirmed the news, and said as a consolation "We felt that you would be successful at many things not just writing." At the time that felt like cold comfort. I walked around in a fog of pain, insecurity, and meaninglessness. The yearning to be told if I was good enough had been meet with a resounding no and now I wasn't sure if the knowing helped.
But this time I got lucky and a professor commented that I was smart. A horrible writer but smart. I believe his words were "I don't know how someone as smart as you can have so many grammar errors." But it was a lifeline and I took it in my hands like a drowning victim. For the next 15 years these words followed by others shaped me into an academic. Of course I struggled with that nagging insecurity but it was something. I was something. Somebody. I had purpose.
The first rejection letter stung. But when the U of Toronto letter marked my final rejection, I felt the same way I did when I had to sit with that department. Another confirmation that I was indeed not good enough. You wanted to know I taunted myself because I house a deeply mean inner girl. Fortunately this time around I had other meanings built up. My family. Homeschooling. Things that were vital and important.
However I still floundered because there was this piece that felt missing. I tried religion, and for a time it worked. I imagined myself getting into theology or counseling. But the problem of not really believing (and yes I know the word is complicated) kept me at a distance. I tried to engage through practice but it felt fake and awkward. I tried spirituality recently with the same results. I am not a religious person anymore even though I still find religious things deeply fascinating. There was no building me into that religious person. I dipped my foot into the being the "disability mom" but that didn't fit either. I don't like making so much of my meaning rest on my children. Icky.
Lately I tried writing. I finished a novel. I think it's okay. And I realized when I got the news about a potential graduate program close to me that something important had shifted in the last six years. There was an identity in that space; one that scared me yes but it was there. I wrote my novel in a month. A month of frenzied, wonderful, exhilarating writing. Editing has not been meet with the same enthusiasm. It is February and I am only 30 pages into my novel. In December, I told myself it was the business of the season. Exhaustion from writing so much so fast. The drudgery of five six kids and a six mama. But by mid January I admitted it was fear. Wonder if my novel was so horrible I couldn't even read it? I couldn't bear the thought. Still I pushed myself one to day to read. And yes there were some major problems but it was a solid story. I pushed further and realized I still loved my characters, and loved my plot. Tentatively I began to sit more firmly in the idea I was a writer. An identity I had shied from since that long ago rejection.
Over the last few weeks, a few incidents have popped up that make that old insecurity crack open again. Fears that I am foolish and presumptuous to take on the title of writer. Fears that the local college had it right in denying me the title writer. Graduate school became something else in this moment of fear. It was the second choice. Something I knew and felt comfortable doing even as I felt I was not good enough. A chance to prove myself and make a claim about worth. Graduate school for all it's shit did a fairly good job of giving me constant feedback about my place in the world. Being a writer does not offer these same comforts. My blog doesn't get enough hits to give that kind of feedback. No one who has read my work has come out and said "Wow you're shat time to move on love" but they've also not said "Wow you have talent. Keep writing." And slowly I am starting to think that even if someone did say these things that this wouldn't be my defining moment as a writer. While I don't buy into the ridiculous notion that we give ourselves meaning, I am sure that my identity as a writer comes from having stories to tell not necessarily from having admirers. And for the first time, I feel that the academy does not get to be the end of my story.