When I left the newspaper, it was for poetry school. (Yes, you read that right.) I’d been accepted in the MFA program at the University of Arizona in the poetry track.
My journalism friends didn’t quite understand the decision: It was as if I were cruising along the highway at 60 MPH, then suddenly caught sight of an exit ramp and swerved across four lanes of traffic to take it.
I wanted – no, craved – to build something meaningful and important from language. Was poetry the way? Sorta.
I knew I could write it, at least well enough to land a spot in a respectable program. But did poetry provide me solace in dark times? Did it feed my soul?
I fell deeply in love with the poetry culture and the community. I adored the lives and stories of renowned and historical writers. I loved using language like paint, and the idea of me as a poet.
I remember literally grinning about my first assignment in my first class, to write two pages about my aesthetic. I was like, “Uh . . . what? Do I have one of those?!”
But I also felt a bit like I was willing myself to become someone else. Part of me reasoned (maybe not consciously) that if I had enough belief, enough grit, then I could fully embody my inner poet self.
In retrospect, what I fell most in love with was the meaning behind – and the mission of – the work. I fell in love with who I wanted to be.
Poets are weird and cool. I know, I’m painting with broad brush strokes, but as a whole, they’re smart in unexpected, insightful ways. They’re quirky, empathetic, egocentric, complicated and confused. They’re political. They’re generous. They don’t pay much attention to mainstream culture, and they’re not in it for the money, obviously. To many of them, poetry is everything.
Just imagine . . . someone gives you a golden ticket to enter their cool world, essentially saying, “you are one of us.” Well, perhaps you see how that would be a powerful persuasion?
I couldn’t even believe I was invited.
But after graduate school? My peers applied to PhD programs, writing residencies and fellowships, and then began publishing books. The gap widen between us as I hesitated to go big.
Instead, I stayed small. I wrote on the side. I gave readings occasionally, and earned legitimate recognition in the community, but rarely published.
I buried my disappointment about my lack of ambition, always waiting for more conviction to arrive as if waiting for Godot. Poetry was always a part of me, just not all of me. And yet my desire to fit in was so strong that it took me a long time to say, You don’t have to force this. It’s okay to be who you are.
I know that sounds melodramatic, but that’s my story. Swap out the word “poet” for any other identity, and you’ve got the core of the human struggle to find something like a life of purpose.
For many of us, carving out that path is about slashing through a proverbial jungle with a machete. The jungle’s a tangled, thick mess and you can’t see beyond the next step.
But if you have a small voice calling you in a new direction — even if you don’t know where yet — I’m encouraging you to listen. You don’t need my permission, but we all could use more champions.
Maybe your different lives are braiding together to form something great. Maybe what you need is a new perspective, and a cute hair tie.
NEXT EPISODE: I dig out my “purpose statement” from my notebook . . . it talks about lip gloss and scaffolding. Hmmm.