Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A History of Pages

Maybe it’s because I rode up Mt. Diablo last night in the golden sunlight that only an August day at dusk can produce. Up the winding road I pedaled, and as I rounded a bend I imagined myself surrounded by sage and bitter brush and I was transported home, to the remote rural regions of northern Nevada, where I am from. 

It was as though I was a child again, smelling like the sweating-sweet sagebrush under the hot summer sun; running along the paths formed by mule deer or those minuscule arroyos, products of the rare flash-flood summer rain. It was there, long ago, I decided to be a writer. 
Age nine: my button collection, collected at from the sewing room at the retirement community where my grandmother lived, was none other than a cast of characters that may have peopled my own day-time soap opera. The “wealthy” family: a matching set of rhinestone-studded buttons from some long-dismantled evening gown. The “working class:” plastic buttons in shapes of fruit (suggesting a coarse, if wholesome existence.) These were my first “stories” I told myself since both parents worked and it was my job to keep myself entertained. 
I tried to write my first novel when I was twelve. Thirty or so handwritten pages: a narrative describing the life of a young girl suddenly left parentless who flees to a nearby mountain range to live in a grove of aspen trees (left unfinished for the obvious lack of plot.) My stepfather worked for a mining company and so we moved at least once a year, sometimes more. I missed taking some required standardized tests and was placed in remedial English my freshman year of high school. The first assignment in the class was to write about a “crush.” I turned in a twenty-page fictional story with the requisite qualities of rising action, climax and denouement. The teacher took the essay directly to the office and switched me into the honors section.
After I returned from France as an exchange student, however, I was once again forced to take “remedial” English courses. 
Despite all of this, I loved writing. It was the thing that defined me. It’s how my mind works: ever-framing, always recounting, re-arranging, revising. It’s no surprise I was an English major in college. Or that I dreamed of getting an MFA in Creative Writing
And so, when the time came to apply for graduate programs, I thought I was ready. I’d spent the entire summer living in a cabin on the west shore of Lake Tahoe with no TV, no internet, no phone. Just myself and books and my writing. 
I wrote every morning and night. Revised the things I had written. I put together application packets and sent them to twelve MFA programs around the country. Some very well known. Others, more obscure. I thought I was on the path to being a Writer (writ large.)
The rejection letters came in, one after another. I lost my job and the place I was living. Professors who knew me well from my undergraduate studies let me live in an extra room of theirs until I regained some semblance of a life. I found work in a ski shop and hated it. And worse: the rejection letters kept coming. San Francisco State University sent me four rejection letters in total. I cried every night, wondering how I had become such a loser. 
And, for a while, I gave up. I went to work and sold ski parkas to elderly women. I was miserable. I thought my life would amount to nothing. 
And that’s about the time I started running. So slow: only a half mile at first. And then, a mile perhaps-- the ten minutes of every day I had without my horrible retail job and the inner-critic in me was silenced. After a few weeks of running, a miracle happened: a former French professor came into the shop where I worked and offered me a teaching assistantship. I only had to fill out the application. 
And so that night, I did. 
I was accepted. 
I continued to run, building my mileage from one mile a day, to two. Then three. Then an hour. Then, more. 
As I enrolled for the required French courses in the Master of Arts program, I added additional writing courses though they would not contribute to my degree. They were “free”-- and I thought “if I can x- miles a day, I can take a writing course.” And so, I did. 
We all know the story: I signed up for a marathon; and I won. But perhaps you don’t know is that, in 2010 (four years after I applied to 12 MFA programs and was rejected by them all) I applied again, to one. And not only was I accepted, I was given a scholarship to go. And it’s where I am now, once again having been awarded a scholarship in my second year to continue my dream of one day being a writer
I tell this story because, for me, running (or, athletics) isn’t only about physical accomplishment. Running has taught me to believe in myself and to pursue my dreams no matter what the world tells me I can and cannot do.
Each day, running reinforces the sense that I am strong; and that “big goals” can be tackled with a “one-step-at-a-time” approach. 
But mostly it’s what I feel as I pedal up Mt. Diablo in the fading summer light: I’m letting that little girl who was once me live her dream. She’ll be a writer one day... on her own merit, earned mile after mile.


Carol McClelland said...

Beautifully written! Enjoyed every phase of your story...memories from all periods of your life. Congratulations on your achievements!

Allison said...

Rebecca, there are so many stories of great people being told by people at educational institutions that they are not enough. And time and again history proved that those people knew how to take only one measure of intelligence, talent, skill or contribution to the human race.

I am happy that you are where you are, and urge you to take everything you are told with a grain of salt. Decide for yourself. And I'll be looking for you on the shelves at my local bookstore.