Half A World Away

Believe it or not, today marks the 5-year anniversary of my escape from the Ivory Tower. (Well, I didn’t so much “escape” from university as I “successfully defended my Master’s thesis”, but the fight-or-flight hormones were pumping all the same that day!) I am so far removed from the person I was in grad school that it’s hard to remember even being there. Ever. Some of my friends like to tease me and say, ‘Hey! If you weren’t such a quitter, you could have finished your Ph.D. by now’, but I can’t imagine having spent the past five years still in school. Talk about torture! 🙂

Hmmm... five more years in university or a World Cup soccer game viewing in Old Town Square, Prague? Decisions, decisions!

Going to university after I graduated from high school never seemed like an option for me, and by that, I mean I always just assumed that I would go to university. (In retrospect, I’m glad I felt this way, but my parents would have loved me all the same if I announced I was going to take up semi-professional karate after Grade 12. Their love for me is the very definition of ‘unconditional’.) But yes: There was no choice involved in me heading off to post-secondary school– it just was. It was almost as though I believed that getting an undergraduate degree was as mandatory as attending K-12. So I got a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies and then applied for a Master’s Degree in the same field, because WHAT’S ANOTHER $15,000 and 2 YEARS DURING THE PRIME OF MY LIFE when you’re already in that game? 🙂

Me (via dramatic re-enactment in Prague): Gee, I might as well keep hanging out here...

Well. My lifelong love of school and my mad academic skillz were put to the extreme test about 2 days into my MA studies. Listening to one of my peers babble on and on excitedly about some “critical issue” or another in my COMS of Biotechnology class, I realized with a mixture of surprise and boredom: Maybe I don’t love Communication Studies as much as I thought I did, and Perhaps I’d rather die a slow and grueling death than be a university professor in the future. This was not a fun (or timely) discovery to make, seeing as I had just started the graduate program, so I resolved to “give it some more time” and, failing all else, to force myself to graduate. Unfortunately, time did nothing to soften up my bad attitude, so I ended up undertaking, writing, and defending a 100+ page thesis, hating everything the entire time. I was a smart girl, and I was not a quitter. I would earn those “M.A.” initials behind my name if it killed me!

And it nearly did.

My personal Coat of Arms during my Master's Program. (Actually, this is inside one of the chapels in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic.)

During the 17 months it took me to complete my coursework and write/defend a 105-page thesis on women’s experiences with various methods of contraception*, I transformed from a positive, life-loving young woman into a anxiety-ridden, majorly stressed-out basket case. I carried a gigantic burden of PAIN and SUFFERING with me the whole time, and every. little. thing brought me to ugly tears. I remember my dad phoning to wish me a happy birthday after my first year of grad studies and not knowing how to react when I responded to his cheeriness with high-decibel wails and frustrated sobs (probably about discursive theory or something equally rage-tastic).

I couldn’t help myself.

Me vs. Me

I developed a considerable case of first-time depression during my MA program, and I worried constantly about alienating my remaining friends and even worse: losing my still-new marriage to Marty. (Poor man had a rough go when his blushing bride morphed, almost overnight, into a screeching banshee!) I became hyper-vigilant and continually monitored my behaviours and thoughts, which only made me become more robotic and Not At All Fun To Be Around. I should have more fun. Why am I not having fun? I’m no fun to be around. Why would anybody want to be with somebody so un-fun? I will lose all the friendships I’ve ever had because I’m not fun. BEING NO FUN IS NO FUN AT ALL!!

I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about Grad School that caused me to become such a horrible shadow of my former self. Was it the workload? Was it the forced classroom dialogues over issues I could care less about? (Foucault again? Really?) Was it the extremely rocky relationship I developed with my former supervisor? The subsequent fallout I had with my former supervisor? The fallout that effectively burned a gigantic bridge between us and precluded me from ever using her as a reference again, forever and ever amen?

In any case, once I became so stressed out and apoplectic about everything, I had a very difficult time recovering. Marty would try to take me hiking on the weekends so I could have a few hours of *not* thinking about my thesis. Of course, the entire time, my panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains would be obstructed with thoughts like “I should be working on my thesis. All of my classmates are probably working on their projects right now. I feel guilty for not working on my thesis.” I’m not even exaggerating the extent of my awfulness. Somebody else from the Legitimate Science Department could have undertaken a quantitative study on “The Degree of Dana’s Horribleness During Her M.A. Program”, and the objective, hard data results would have come back: 98th Percentile of Terrible.

After months and months of withering away into a toxic, shriveled-up crisp of a person, the day finally came for me to defend my thesis. I was the first in my cohort to bring my thesis up for defense, and boy oh boy, was I a wreck! (Aside: I was not the first in my cohort to use academic-sounding words like “cohort”. Not a chance! I just threw that in there to sound smart.) Anyway. I had developed a severe stutter the night before my defense, and as I tried to rehearse my opening speech beforehand, I had poor Marty’s ears panicking (and probably bleeding). C-c-c-critical f-f-f-em-in-in-ist dis-dis-dis-course. I kept telling myself: Three hours and then it’s over. Three hours and then I can have my life back. Three hours of PAIN and SUFFERING and then everything can go back to normal… if I pass. (For the record: failing my thesis would have been soul-crushing. It’s rare for students to fail a defense, unless they plow ahead with the exam against their supervisor’s better judgment. Me? I had tickets booked to Europe for June, so I needed everything done and behind me before I left. PASS OR DIE!!!)

For the record: a nice, long trip to Europe cures any/all school-related blues.

I had allowed my exam to be “open”, meaning that anybody could come and watch. Yes, anybody! (The alternative was keeping it “closed” but risking tougher questions from the panel, who wouldn’t have an audience to hold them accountable for their meanness.) I ended up with an audience of about 5 people– Marty included– plus my panel, which consisted of my supervisor, the Department Head of Qualitative Psychology, and the Department Head of Women’s Studies. Tough. As. Nails.

I managed to get through my opening speech without stuttering, which was a miracle in itself. Then all I remember is saying “discourse” and “discursive” about 8 billion times over the course of a few hours. It was a blur of discursiveness. Marty watched on politely the entire time, trying not to let his eyes glaze over with the residue of Academese. What a champ! The tough questions came to a close. My panel conferred in private. It was announced that I had passed. Just a few revisions needed to be completed on my thesis, but then my program would be over and I could officially have my life back.

WHEEEE!!! Let's go and BE GYPSIES for a few months!

It took me a long time to fully recover from grad school. The program had pulverized my soul and heart with dramatic, overzealous kicks and stomps, so the transition from She-Beast back to Ordinary Woman did not happen overnight. I still have a difficult time staying out of my head, so to speak. It’s natural for me to analyze and over-analyze everything, and as much as I detest debating for the sake of debating, occasionally I find myself making a gigantic deal over nothing, just because I can. (I’m always so ashamed to catch myself doing this!)

If you can believe it, I seriously considered pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology soon after I finished my Master’s Degree. (Yeah, a Doctorate in Delusional, maybe…) It wasn’t because I wanted to do it, but because I felt I should. My supervisor, channeling a Greek chorus, told me that I belonged in the university and that I could never escape my destiny, and for a while I believed her. But then my paltry iota of Street Smarts finally (FINALLY!) kicked in. I didn’t want to be in school for another 5+ years, and then possibly for the rest of my life!!! I wanted to travel, to work at a ‘real job’, and to just plain old live for a little while. Screw the Ph.D.! I would dig a hole out of my so-called destiny and chart a new path!

My starring role in "The Shawshank Redemption". Just like Tim Robbins, but with a darker tan. And only one leg in this shot (??)

Looking back, I feel okay that I pursued my Master’s Degree. It still doesn’t feel like the *best* thing I could have done with those two years of my life– and I definitely wasn’t rendered any more intelligent or competent by real world standards because of it– but then again, what would have been the best thing to do during that time? Take up semi-professional karate? 😉 I take comfort now in believing that I am taken care of by the Universe, even if I don’t understand the bigger picture at any given point (or at all– let’s be honest here).  Part of me also secretly believes that an opportunity will present itself one day and will demand a Master’s Degree (in COMS, no less) as a pre-requisite. Then, won’t somebody be glad she went through hell and back to earn those silly initials behind her name…

Anyway. This was a really, really long way of saying Happy Five Years Of Being Out of Grad School to me! I’m happy to be sharing the more cheerful version of myself with all of you, but I’m certainly not above signing this particular post off with the initials that rendered me decidedly less cheerful than I am now:

Dana, B.A., M.A 🙂

Inadvertently looking smug. I am the Master of Smugness.

*Don’t ask me how this topic relates, in any way, to Communication Studies. My logic: People spoke to me about their experiences, and Speaking = Communicating, therefore I win COMS thesis writing!

Writing School Dropout

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I saw a pamphlet for some continuing education courses in writing at a local college, and I thought to myself “Gee! My two degrees and six years taking Communications Studies in university notwithstanding, I sure could use some Official Training In Writing.” I am an aspiring writer and I’m also one of those people who seems to believe that a person can only be a Professional Anything if they can put some institutionally sanctioned letters behind their name (C.A., R.D., Ph.D, M.D, D.D.S., etc– it’s ridiculous, I know). Therefore, signing up for a writing class or two at this college felt like the right thing to do. At the time.

The first thing I learned when I showed up for my College Writing Course was that I have spent a grand total of zero hours taking myself– and my dreams to write– seriously. Sure, I have impressive ambitions to write a best-selling book at some point, and a great number of my waking hours currently are spent writing on this here blog, but I’ve never actually uttered the words “I am a writer” aloud before. Especially in the company of other, Capital-‘W’ Writers. Can you believe it? It’s always been “I would like to be a writer”, or “I love to write [casually? as a hobby? to occupy my time? just for fun?]”. I’ve never granted my love of writing the weight of professionalism or Viable Career Path Credibility when I speak about it in public.

On a related note, I might not be completely right in the head.

Everyone else in my class seemed to be comfortable calling themselves professional writers, even if (in my humble, though occasionally ultra-judgmental opinion), they were clearly NOT PROFESSIONAL WRITERS AT ALL. (Journal writing doesn’t count, people! Unless you are Anne Frank and your diary has been read by millions.) This was an eye-opening experience for me, to say the least. It made me wonder: What is it going to take for me to be a writer? When will I give up becoming a writer and just be one already? Will x amount of Continuing Ed courses get me there? Do I need to have a few Creative Writing credits under my belt? Or should I just print out some business cards and call it a day?

“Dana L., B.A., M.A.: Writer”

Anyway. The course itself was all about writing cohesive narratives using historical fragments (archival materials, objects, snippets of conversation, etc.) as a starting foundation. Like the book-smart, non-streetwise person that I am, I packed some looseleaf paper and a pen for the class and expected to take notes for a couple of hours. I was going to learn how to write narratives really well. After all, I am the best student, listener, and note-taker ever! (I’m just not a Real Writer, apparently.) Instead, the instructor spent a good half of the class talking about us, his students, and asking us to describe for him the historical writing projects we were currently undertaking.


Imagine how foolish I felt when everybody else in the class started speaking at great lengths about their intricate chapters on locomotive history in British Columbia, their enthralling recollections of the Fraser Valley floods, their gripping wartime memoirs, and their legacy family history projects. They were passionate, they were professional(ish), and they were clearly ready for this class. I, on the other hand, was one of only two participants in the room who were forced to confess, rather sheepishly, that I didn’t quite have a project on to go just yet. (My blog would have come up in this particular context over my cold, dead body. Totally not the right crowd for it.) Yes, I have ideas and plans and dreams and beginnings, but I am nowhere near as far along on any writing project as my classmates were on theirs. I fail Writing School! 😦

To make matters worse, we were assigned a homework project that was to be completed at some point during my grueling trip to Calgary. Pain. And. Suffering. The homework assignment was to send a synopsis of our Genius Writing Project to the rest of our classmates, and then provide constructive comments for everybody else’s projects. Kumbaya! What should we do if we didn’t have a project in the works? Make one up. Obviously.


For my homework assignment, I sent some rough, preliminary paragraphs to my classmates about a project I really would like to work on at some point in the future (you know, when I’m finally willing to take that leap and commit myself to being an Honest-to-God WRITER): a sweeping diatribe on Marty’s artwork. It was not a masterpiece collection of paragraphs, by any means, and I knew that a lot of my initial points would require further elaboration when class resumed the following week.

But I never made it to the next– and final– class. Nope. I was stuck en route back from Calgary, stymied by some avalanches, an epic bus ride, a decided lack of sleep, and I’ll admit it: a bad attitude to boot.

My classmates and instructor ended up discussing my project in my absence (probably so I couldn’t demand a refund for not showing up to class.) My instructor e-mailed their collective comments to me tonight, and I have to say: I’m pretty disappointed with them. My paragraphs were rather off-the-cuff and spontaneous to begin with, so I knew there could be lots of room for misinterpretation. And boy, was there ever misinterpretation. My “constructive comments” ranged from “This project will not work”, to “Choose something different”, to “She has real issues she needs to work through with her husband before this project will go anywhere.” I’m paraphrasing a tad, but this is for real. Thanks, classmates!

So now I’m not sure exactly what I feel right now. Upset, in a sense: I can’t use any of these comments to move forward. Afraid: Maybe this project isn’t worth moving forward on at all? Defiant, in another sense: I’ll show you the best damn writing project YOU’VE EVER ENCOUNTERED!!! You will fall over from the sheer force of its narrative genius!!! I feel guarded and cautious and reluctant to get into any more details, at least with my classmates. They don’t understand. That much is clear. I needed to be there to elaborate and clarify my preliminary paragraphs.

If anything, though, I guess I can take some food for thought out of this class: What, exactly, is ‘good enough’ to be considered ‘good enough’ when it comes to writing and being a professional writer? When will I pony up and start acknowledging myself as a writer? (To your face, not just through your computer screen?) Do any of you find yourselves talking about ‘becoming’ something without ever letting yourselves ‘be’ that something? Or am I the only one? 🙂