Looking Back on 2013, and Looking Forward Too

Well, I got what I wanted from last year for 2013: change. This whole year saw significant change in my life in a variety of arenas and pushed me to develop aspects of myself that I had otherwise ignored the past few years.

The last time I can recall such significant changes going on in my life was back in 2009: I graduated with my M.A. in English into the worst job market in recent memory (at that time) for young college graduates with Humanities degrees. Unable to find full time employment, I moved back in with my parents, back to the hometown I’d tried my best to avoid for the six years prior after graduating from high school. I worked full time at the family bowling alley as a manager and taught part-time, mainly at Missouri State University’s satellite junior campus in West Plains. At one point, I was doing all of that and getting my MFA from Stonecoast. Most of my friends from high school were already gone by that point (pretty much all of them, actually), off living lives far away from West Plains the way I wished I could’ve been doing.

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I spent four years in that town working hard on different things so I could ignore the ghost of the life I really wished I could live. In retrospect, all of the dark feelings and thoughts I was wrestling with were really four years’ worth of anxieties and disappointments coming to a head at the prospect of yet another failed job search, indefinitely prolonged adjunct limbo, and living in a place where I felt like a perpetual exile.

All of that is to set up a realization I had: 2013 has been like 2009, but in reverse.

The bulk of January was basically me trying to change emotional course from 2012, doing whatever I could to slap myself awake.  That was when I wrote this blog post, outlining all of the things I wanted to do in 2013, which boils down to this checklist:

  • I will continue to develop and challenge myself as an editor.
  • I will continue to travel to new places.
  • I will continue to attend conventions this year.
  • I will exercise regularly.
  • I will write and sell at least six stories.
  • I will start working on a novel at some point.
  • I will make new progress toward my ideal academic career.
  • I will move away to somewhere new by the end of the year.
  • I will be more active in fighting back against any dark moods that rise up on me.

It worked, for the most part. Having explicitly stated goals always helps with affecting my mindset.

Back in February, though, the first harbinger (such a fun word) of change came with a letter of acceptance to the PhD program in Creative Writing at Kansas University, which I previously wrote about here and here.  I’ll bring it up simply to say that this was the first sign of – cliché alert – the light at the end of the tunnel. I started thinking about all I could do at KU, and how much of an improvement being a GTA would be over serving as an adjunct at MSU-WP for five more years (better pay, basically, and better career advancement opportunities).

It gave me a goal, something good to focus on for the next few months. I worked my way through Spring in oddly good spirits. I also took that semester off from teaching because, quite frankly, I needed it. The previous semester was incredibly stressful, and I needed to hit the Reset Button so I could see if I still wanted to do this later, and also so I could recover from what was obviously (looking back, that is) a tipping point for total burnout.

Come August, I was leaving West Plains for Lawrence, hopefully for good, at least for the next five years. We packed my things on a trailer and drove a convoy five hours up to Lawrence and moved my stuff into my apartment. In terms of my personal life, that’s where I last left this blog, in fact.

So, what has happened since then? Oh, lots of stuff.

I found a city I feel happy living in. Lawrence is a massive improvement over West Plains. It’s not a terribly big city – about 90,000 at max population (during the school year, thanks to the undergrads) – but I don’t feel deprived of any resources that I think a city should have. Compared to where I lived before, I feel swamped by options. Downtown Lawrence is really nice; I like the bar and restaurant scene here. And for anything else I might want, I’m less than an hour away from Kansas City. I guess what I mean to say is that I don’t feel isolated from the rest of the world anymore. I feel like I’m part of it instead.

I rediscovered my fondness for teaching. This semester wasn’t easy, by any means. It’s a new place, with new resources and new colleagues. The personality of KU is very different from MSU or any other place I taught, and I had to figure that out. I also had to learn a new curriculum for teaching composition and new theory to use in my classes, most notably multimodal composition theory, which I didn’t even realize was a thing until I arrived on campus for orientation week in August. I had to teach myself how to teach the assignments, sometimes with very little time between learning what I had to do and implementing it in the classroom.

And yet it worked. My classes overall performed admirably, even freakishly well. Both classes had distinctly different personalities and levels of preparation as students, but the vast majority of my students in both classes saw significant growth in the quality of their writing and their student skills. I enjoyed the dialogic process of negotiating the terms of good writing with them, finding enough common ground to show them what they needed to do. It was so fulfilling seeing so many of my students, especially the ones who had been more skeptical throughout the semester, become more invested in their work. The difference from the start of the semester to the very end was quite profound in some cases.  I’m proud of them, and I also feel validated in knowing that all of those measures I took to try and reach them actually worked (well, most of them, hopefully). It was heartwarming to receive so many messages from students at the end of the semester thanking me for teaching class.  I don’t teach because I want those thanks, but it was pretty great to receive them.

I got re-engaged with my writing. One of my classes this semester was a workshop in mixed genre writing – basically, an experimental writing class. I took part in a similar workshop during a Stonecoast residency a few years ago, but that only lasted four days and was mainly limited to nonfiction writers. So, it was nice to study experimental writing over the course of a whole semester. The second story I wrote for that workshop was the first new story I’d written all semester, and in fact all year. I wrote it blind, honestly not knowing how it was going to end while I was still writing it. I had an initial idea of what would happen with it, but that idea changed drastically, and I allowed it to change. I allowed myself to be more spontaneous and left myself more open to my reactions while writing the story. Above all, I told myself I wouldn’t make my own judgments about its quality until I felt like the draft was finished. The result? For the first time in a while, I felt excited by what I was writing. It became fun again.

I made some amazing new friends. It was kinda rough for me at first, living up in Lawrence, just because I felt nervous about uprooting myself and moving to a place where the only person I knew was someone I went through my Master’s program at MSU with. After living for four years in a town where I had trouble finding peers with similar interests and life situations, I was both afraid I wouldn’t be able to socialize with people properly and also eager to socialize in the first place. That’s… not a great mixture. Kinda problematic.

I have no idea

Thankfully, I started bonding with my fellow GTAs pretty quickly, almost from Day One. By the end of that week, I’d realized that they were all pretty cool, intelligent people who would be fun to spend time with. By mid-semester, I relaxed myself a lot and learned to ignore my fears about socializing. As a result, I discovered I could trust many of them as not just valuable colleagues, but good friends as well. By now, with the completed semester a few weeks behind me, I feel great about my personal life and my circle of friends here.

I’m in a healthy relationship with someone. And it is awesome. Which is implied by the use of “healthy” as an adjective, of course. Still, though, it’s pretty great. It’s the first one I’ve had in a while – the dating scene in West Plains didn’t suit me very well (that is not a dig on that town, by the way; it’s just that nothing really worked out for me). Here in Lawrence, though, it was easier to find people with shared interests and personalities, and I had the free time to invest in dating, for instance. Not that it was easy; far from it, really. It was often fun, but also challenging.

dog-flips-over-ball1

Sometimes dating feels like this.

There’s something odd about relationships and dating, when you think about it. Sure, there are those dates where you go out with someone and find out that they’re boring, or sexist, or deplorable or unengaging in some obvious, sitcom-funny way. Weirder still, though, are the times you go out with people that you do actually like on a personal level, who are genuinely good, cool people with a lot going on, and you think it’s going to work, and then it doesn’t. It hinges on a lot of factors unrelated to how good or attractive a person is: desired levels of chemistry and intimacy, personality types, personal values, preferred methods of dealing with the world, emotional availability, communication ability, etc. (Those last two are absolute kickers, by the way.)

I think the temptation for a lot of people – myself included, at times – is to look at the situation like it’s something on paper you can read and check for errors, saying “This should work. The blueprint looks good.” It takes a special mixture of all sorts of things that is quite frankly impossible to predict until it happens. I’m in a relationship with a fantastic person because I did something I never thought I’d be capable of doing until I arrived in Lawrence: I left myself open to possibilities and tried my best to not second-guess everything or predict what was going to happen. I decided it was okay to throw out the script and improvise, to say, “You know what? Let’s do this and see what happens.” I acted on my feelings when they manifested in the right place at the right time. I’d say it’s working out magnificently.

So, how is that checklist looking from earlier this year?

  • I will continue to develop and challenge myself as an editor.
  • I will continue to travel to new places.
  • I will continue to attend conventions this year.
  • I will exercise regularly.
  • I will write and sell at least six stories.
  • I will start working on a novel at some point.
  • I will make new progress toward my ideal academic career.·
  • I will move away to somewhere new by the end of the year.
  • I will be more active in fighting back against any dark moods that rise up on me.

Didn’t do so hot on the exercise thing this year, and I didn’t sell squat on my writing, nor did I start a novel. (I’m still not sure how to tell I have an idea or ideas that would generate an entire novel in structure or content; then again, only one way to find out.) The convention thing died away once I knew I’d have to save up money for the move. So, I didn’t get to see any of my con peeps from last year, but at least I can stay in touch with them through other means. It’s not the end of the world because I missed some resolutions, though. I’m just rolling them over to this year. I may fail on them again, and that’s okay; I’ll just try again. The important thing is, I feel better about myself, what I do, and where I’m at, figuratively and literally. Because of that, I can continue pursuing other things and not get discouraged if I fall short.

So, I feel ready for 2014. (Not that I would have a choice, but whatever.) I’m happy for what I have now, and I’m eager to see what’s next.

success_kid

Bonus: For any interested parties, here are links to my favorite music, films, TV, and books from the last year.

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