(I don't normally complain into the blog-void, and won't be making a habit of it but... this one is lit-centric. Back to your regularly scheduled poems next week.)
If you’re feeling depressed, getting caught in a torrential downpour on a bike, wearing bell-bottoms, and being forced to wait for 45 minutes in a 24h Tims in the middle of the night, sopping wet, with no book or other distraction is not exactly the best way to cheer yourself up. As I watched the rain hammer the pavement yesterday, the showers eclipsing the university across the street--the university through which I just completed my MA in English--I had nothing to do but wallow. I’ve wanted to attend this university since my first year of undergrad. I’ve been dreaming of getting a graduate degree for years. I should feel the same elation I felt when I got my acceptance letter. Instead I feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut.
At first I thought this was the result of no one deeply connected to either me or the project being around. My family isn’t here, my partner is out of town, my supervisor was out of town, and all my old friends are far away. But that wasn’t it. Many classmates were around to wish me well—new friends made me dinner or bought me beer or shots of jäger. Though turning my paper in to a mail slot rather than my supervisor was a tad anticlimactic, this vacuum in my chest was more than anticlimax. Complaining via inebriated text message to an old friend, and fellow newly-minted English Master, I whined that I felt like I was having a post-degree identity crisis. He replied, “I know the feeling… like a black hole where the project used to be.”
Where once every moment could potentially have been dedicated to your research, you now have nothing urgent to complete. No one force swallowing all your intellectual energy. It’s more relaxing, but it’s also arresting. What do I do with my time? Who am I without my work? I try to keep my hand in the creative writing community, so I have that to fall back on, but for the past seven years, I’ve either been an English major, or I’ve been saving my pennies to continue being an English major. Two summers in undergrad I spent taking classes or doing research projects. During my year off last year, I still took an English grad class. For the first time in my adult life, I am not planning on any more English classes. For the first time, my work has not been a step towards something else, it has been an end.
This sterility is to some degree self-imposed. I didn’t apply for any PhD programs. I did not enjoy working alone for days on end, not speaking to anyone for days at a time when friends were busy. I found doing nothing but research lonely, and thought signing up for four years of solo research wouldn’t be a good choice for me. I was also unable to face down the poor job prospects for English PhDs, and though I know a few young doctors and even MAs who’ve secured tenure track positions, I couldn’t convince myself that I’d be as fortunate, or that I would be able to work hard enough to make myself an attractive candidate. I didn’t know if I wanted to teach, I didn’t want to have to move wherever I got a job. I didn’t want to feel lonely, but now that’s how I feel. I’m not sure if I’d be happier if I was starting a PhD. I do know it’s been in the back of my mind since my first week of undergrad, and even as I realized that it probably wasn’t right for me (at least not right now), it’s been a hard idea to shelve. About half the conversations I have with other English MAs devolve into me explaining why I don’t think I’ll do a PhD. Doth I protest too much? Maybe, maybe not.
In the end, I think the loss I’m feeling comes from expecting too much of the experience. I am now as educated as many of the writers and thinkers I’ve looked up to for years, but, as was the case with other educational experiences, it’s hard for me to note exactly how I’ve changed. I had a great year with challenging classes and I learned a lot about my specific research topic as well as a range of other genres and eras of literature, but I don’t feel like I'm all that much smarter than I used to be. I’m not confident that I am now on par with those MAs I’ve been looking up to. Though I was not naïve enough to think that this degree would somehow change my whole life, I thought the world would feel a little different at the end of grad school. It doesn’t feel that different. I worked hard for years to get into grad school, to get a grant to pay for it. Where do I direct that energy now? More importantly what new goals do I set myself? What do I hope for or look forward to now? If being an English major defined me, how do I define myself now?
English lit has been the great love of my life, and even though I ended it, it still isn’t easy to say goodbye. While I hope we’ll get back together some day, for the time-being I’ll be rebounding with library sciences. I didn’t choose an MLIS out of fear, but because while I was unsure that I wanted to be a prof, I was certain I wanted to be a librarian. So while I’ve chosen something more practical, and in many ways, better suited to me than a PhD in English, it’s impossible for me not to think about what me and English could have been. In a few years I might come back to it, but for now, I just have to wait for that black hole to close up. And, you know, whine into the internet.