A FEW THOUGHTS ON FINALLY PAYING OFF GRAD SCHOOL LOANS
Unfiltered, by Jude.
Twenty-one years. It's a little humbling to admit this but that's how long it took me to pay off my loan to attend the graduate Creative Writing program at The New School in New York City where I attended between 1998-late 2000. Started paying off the loan just before 9/11.
Thought #1, I would never, never do that again. I don't mean it bitterly. It was just wayyyyy too much to pay for marginal gain. I LOVED being in the program. I saw many great writers and poets and met a number of them. I got to see the National Book Awards readings one year (Alice McDermott won, Charming Billy). I met the late Lucy Grealy, whose incredible memoir The Autobiography of a Face is unforgettable. I studied under Stephen Wright whom I consider one of the greatest American novelists NOBODY reads but everybody should. Google him. The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa read in a room with about 30 people in it and changed the way I look at poetry forever. Find online an audio clip of him reading "Thanks". I also met a lot of great writers in the making, some of whom busted through to literary renown. They earned it. But I personally have not done that after two decades of trying and hundreds of submissions, so from a pure business, outlook paying around $50-60K to attend a Creative Writing program made zero sense. The literary establishment wants nothing to do with books and fiction I have tried to submit over and over. That's ok, it's their call. None of it may be good enough! But in terms of trying to make up what I put out it was not an intelligent choice and my family has definitely been burdened with the 21 years of loan payments. Whoops. You live and learn.
Thought #2. Do I regret it? From a financial standpoint, yes. From an artistic/craft standpoint, much harder to answer. I remember being kind of crushed by a quote from the great fiction writer Edward P. Jones (The Known World, etc) where he said, paraphrased, “You don't need much to learn to write. Books are free at the library, study them. Find a pencil somewhere. And if you don’t have paper you can probably find some in a garbage can.” After a long period of maybe dancing around this point, I finally realized, “You know, that guy is right.” It wasn’t a great feeling but I gained something from it. I guess it was the fact that I could say to others in the future something that is now my current philosophy about how to improve your writing: there are only two ways to do it: read a lot and write a lot. That’s it! Do you have to pay $60K to figure that out? You make the call.
Thought #3. Is all lost then? Just a horrible decision that I can’t get back? No positives? I can’t say that either. First of all, when I decided to try to attend a graduate school program to write, I was still in the U.S. Army and I loved in southern Georgia. Nothing against that area, but being from New Jersey, I wanted to plot my next move to be as far away from the Army and the South as I could get. I had this pretty romantic notion of studying writing in New York City and propping up bars with other writers there and all that stuff. “The writer’s life in New York City,” the ads said, and I bought it. But it was just where I was at the time, a young man, single and in my mid-twenties. If we could have everything back we did in our twenties we’d probably all do it, but it doesn’t work that way. And I did earn a Master’s degree, which is an achievement: forget about how much it cost. I did it while working full time in New York, taking a subway uptown, and going to classes at night 2-3 times a week. I would get home around 11.30 or 12 (to NJ) and be commuting in to work at 7 am the next morning. You try that! But I wanted to do it, and I did it.
Thought #4. I paid my dues. Nobody else paid a single cent for my graduate school education. It may have taken me a really long time but I still did it and now it is finally done. Is that an achievement? Maybe financially it’s a big dud but philosophically and maybe morally, it is – I wanted to do something, it cost me a lot, I paid every cent and I worked the entire 21 years to do that. It may not be the smartest thing in the world but it’s not nothing. I learned from the full process, I guess I can say.
Thought #5. My books. I started writing around 1990. It took me until the mid-90s to even figure out how to complete a short story. I kept going. I started working on telling the story of my first year in the US Army as an Infantry platoon leader in book form around 1994. I used a novel in progress about this material as my graduate thesis in 2000. That was never completed. I reworked the same material at certain times over the next 12 years or so. And in 2013 I FINALLY finished a novel about this and self-published it. It took me AT LEAST 18 years to tell that story and I am STILL very, very proud of that humble first novel. It’s not perfect but it took so much effort and I love that friggin’ book, called BLUE SIX, with my entire soul. Also, very significantly, this book being self-published (and I sent it to many agents & publishers) really charged my batteries to write more stories. And since 2013 I have written many books – 12, in fact, with #13 and #14 coming. ALL self-published and done as best as I could but not flawlessly. It’s all DIY. Did these books all DESERVE publication? The establishment doesn’t think so, and I can’t even claim I could make that case at least from a pure publishing industry perspective. But do I think my books are of good quality? HELL YES I DO. I put all I had into every one of them and I think they’re good!!! They did not write themselves, I assure you. Books are hard work. They were ALL demanding, some of them brutally hard, but I wanted to get them out of me and I did. These books, I hope, will entertain some people who read them, outlive me (maybe not by much), will be important to my descendants (I hope), and can provide entertainment to people I will never meet. All of those things are HUGE to me. But on top of all that, THEY ARE MINE. I made them, and nobody else ever born before or after me could have created them. They came from me and would not exist otherwise. And since I think they’re good, can I take pride in that, no matter how little fame or renown I get or how little I accumulate from them? You know my answer.
Thought #6. I am not sure any of those books would exist if I had not taken the leap to get out of the Army, apply to school, make it into a writing program, meet other writers with similar dreams, and work with some very great established writers. So, in that sense, going to the writing program helped me. And now that I have paid the piper for it to the very last penny, all I can do, and all I WANT to do, is keep going. I have two new books coming out and I am really excited about both of them: a nonfiction collection of magazine articles and essays called The Cathedral of the Imagination, hopefully publishing this spring; and a new short story collection, my fourth, called All Men Are Brothers, with eight new stories, in early 2023. There will be more to come on these new books!
No rest for the weary; no guts no glory; never, never, never give up; and I really mean this, to GOD be all the glory.
If you somehow stayed in to read this, I thank you!!!!