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show me how you do that thing

On Tuesday, I will be spending the entire day in Milwaukee. In the morning, I will be facing my master’s oral examination, whereby Dr. Clark, Professor Liam Callanan and my current professor Dr. Gwynne Kennedy will be asking me questions and I will in theory be answering them with some kind of intelligent combination of words and phrases and perhaps even punctuation.

I’ve heard that someone was asked to define a novel in one of these things, and thinking about how I would answer that question pretty much makes my head explode. The only way I can do it is to make my hands into two right angles and then focus in on a pencil and say “This is a short story” and then spread them wide enough to pull back the shot until it fills the table and say “and this is a novella” and then spread my arms again until my hand frames encompass the entire room and say “And this is a novel”. It’s a piss poor answer, quite frankly, but it’s a better one than “A very long story that has more than, ooooohhhh, 45000 words.”

I’m a little bit nervous, because, well, Dr. Clark is my advisor and thus, running the show, and I would have to say probably my biggest concern out of the three. He scares me, a little bit, and I totally know that it’s all because he won the O’Henry recently. And Professor Callanan is an AMAZING writer, but for reasons I’m not entirely understanding, seems to dig my stuff.

And the cool thing with Dr. Kennedy is that she is outside of the creative writing program, meaning that she’s a lit person. The lit program people all seem to look at the creative writers with a little tilt to their head, like you would if looking at a trained monkey. And she volunteered to me, one night after class, that she was so surprised to hear that I was actually a writer, not a lit and comp person, because I was totally holding my ground in the class with the lit PhD folks. Which, I have to say, almost made me burst out into tears, because after the disaster of that stupid scifi paper, I was honestly starting to doubt whether I could hack critical analysis at all and maybe I was just an idiot savant when it came to words, able to string them together in a way that sounds pleasing, but not really able to think about the fundamentals behind all the lovely phrases. And, quite honestly, between the lack of funding in the program and the fact that the PhD requires an additional 12 credits in lit classes, it’s driving a lot of my decision not to continue on for the PhD. Which is another thing that I know I’ll be asked to explain during my oral exam, and it’s quite honestly, something I’m not looking forward to doing, because I know that my decision is a disappointment to at least Dr. Kennedy.

Thus, this Tuesday is also a big deal because not only is it the last day of class for the semester and also, it will be my last time that I attend a class that I’m taking as a requirement for a degree. At least in the near future, anyway. Which makes everything a little bittersweet.

A few weeks ago, on one of the first truly warm days, I was sitting on a bench next to the big water fountain, weeding through the fiction slush pile for the Cream City Review, and listening to my iPod. My favorite song in the universe, “Just Like Heaven” came on and the moment perfectly encapsulated my experience in this program. Sitting in the middle of everything, hiding behind a pair of sunglasses and some white earbuds, half there in person and halfway an observer untouched by anything. The sun was warm and under the sparkly synthesized rhythm, I could hear the spatter of the water against the flat cement and watch the students and faculty rush by, oblivious. Robert Smith’s voice was full of nostalgia for a time that has passed and even at that moment, I could feel it slipping away, as though I had never been there. Because I practically never was.

And then just when I thought that everything would go fuzzy, dissolve into a faded montage, a shadow broke the page and it was Trent Hergenrader, who was running late for his class but just wanted to say hi.

And for the first time since being in the program, I honestly felt like maybe I was really there.