This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
This past Friday, I graduated from my graduate program with an MFA in writing. We did the whole nine yards: thesis readings, a hooding ceremony, commencement. It was equally overwhelming and pleasant, a celebration busied by the people I love and admire. But I’ve become a stunned version of myself following the handing over of degrees, with part of me refusing to accept that this is over soon.
By the time you are reading this, I will have moved Upstate. Most of my cohort will stay here, by the city. It’s a move I’ve long known was happening and have honestly awaited. I’m from Upstate, with an Upstate mentality I wasn’t entirely ready to accept until being down here full time forced me to. In other words: I don’t like it here. The city isn’t enough of an appeal to keep me, even as my friends are. It’s a difficult decision I made a while ago and am only now really having to engage with. I love these people, I love the parts of this area that I do, but it’s time to leave.
So I’ve been writing a lot in my head, but nothing much on paper. Because putting words to paper, in my experience, makes them real. Makes all this fortunately, and unfortunately, real. After I graduated from college, I wrote obsessively. But perhaps that’s because less than graduate, I was forcefully pulled months early thanks to COVID.
We were told we wouldn’t be returning and that was it: the remnants of our final semester whisked away from us, any closure or possibility of it gone as well. And, perhaps most importantly, we didn’t have to decide how or when we would leave or where our priorities would lie in those final days. In this way, it was almost easier. I didn’t have to make time to hug goodbyes to all of my friends before leaving; I didn’t have to worry about spending enough time with them before we went our separate ways. I wasn’t responsible for the effects my leaving would have. Unlike now.
I moved out on March 17. There wasn’t anyone else in our four person apartment except for my best friend, Parisa, who the college had allowed to stay for a week given her home being across the country. Our hallway that once welcomed us was now lined with cardboard boxes and ginormous black duffel bags that were getting ready to be shipped to California. Inside, our kitchen had been torn apart, its guts spilled out onto the countertop space, hot pink post-its signifying what Parisa was taking.
I hadn’t cried when we were told we wouldn’t be returning; I had expected it. The news had long been erupting about COVID and countries already under lockdown. It seemed inevitable that we’d be sanctioned to home. I also didn’t cry when I saw Parisa again for the first time. My face erupted into a dazzling smile and I pulled her body into my own, even though just days before I had been panic texting her about whether it was safe to hug each other. When I saw her, there wasn’t any question — I simply had to hold her.
My mother and I escaped upstairs, where my bedroom had been. Together we had two cars to make the move and I started just throwing clothes and memoires into reusable bags or plastic storage containers. We had only been given a day to move and we had to make it count. In my head all that mattered was ensuring everything fit.
It was a much different scene from what was unfolding downstairs: Parisa’s carefully labeled organization system, kitchen items marked separate from office supplies which were isolated from bathroom products. Parisa was the person I was most nervous about saying goodbye to. When she left, she’d be returning back home to San Mateo and I’d be here, in upstate New York, with a pandemic just beginning to rear its ugly head. I wasn’t sure when we’d see each other next. Even before heading home for spring break I was plotting our final weeks together, nervous about not capturing enough.
When all was said and packed, Parisa walked out of the bathroom and we crashed into each other. Her sobs wracked behind my ear and I felt the shake of her body. My own tears crossed onto her cheek and it was impossible to tell where her grief ended and where mine began.
That night at home, I took the hottest shower I could muster and put on my college sweatshirt. I couldn’t sit still. Rather than curl up on my bed in a heap of sadness, I slouched into my desk chair and opened a journal. I began to write.
It was all I could do to make sense of the situation, to make space in my body and mind so that I could actually occupy it. All those thoughts had to go somewhere else. Unlike now, where I am packing each and every day to the brim so that I can fill my cup with memories until I inevitably leave so I haven’t written much except for this column and a paragraph or two for my personal memoir project.
But I think this presents two important reminders for myself and my peers. One, different systems work for different folks — like Parisa’s packing versus my own. And two, all us young nonfiction writers are attempting to do the impossible: write creative nonfiction about moments that are happening to us currently. So we kind of need these stretches of intense emotional labor because they lay the groundwork for our craft. You know when something bad happens to you and you say “well at least I can write an essay about it?” That’s what I’m living right now. We need space to inhabit stories. And that’s what graduating, and this week following, have provided for me: time to work on my writing without actually doing the writing.