It’s my first semester in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University, and all I can think about is: I don’t have a backpack.
Let’s just say, it’s been a very, very long time since I was in school, and suddenly, I’m obsessing over the fact that I did not go back-to-school shopping. Yet, it doesn’t matter whether I have a backpack, because I don’t even know what to wear. Do students even carry backpacks any more, or should I just get a big purse?
Then, in that first week, I got an email from one of my professors saying, “By now you must be well on your way in the reading.” Reading? What reading? OMG, did I miss an email over the summer? Sure enough, I was supposed to be finishing a 600-page book, and I still needed to purchase the 1,200-page book for class. Class had barely started, and I was already behind!
Next, the syllabus is posted. There’s an oral presentation, PowerPoint and critical paper expected.
I suddenly remember, that I don’t know anyone. Am I going to fit in? I feel like I’m back in middle school! Will anyone want to be friends with someone who’s basically as old as their parents (or grandparents!)? I’ve had a successful professional career, I’ve done hard things. I had hoped that going back to school might keep me sharp and make me feel younger. Instead, I feel like I’m 12, worried about what I’m going to wear and fitting in!
Panic sets in. Will I be able to keep up? So, I went back to wondering: which brand of backpacks are cool these days?
Grad School and Anxiety
According to Ed Fox, a therapist at the Chapman Student Counseling Center with 35 years of experience, including 25 years as assistant director for the center, “Anxiety is the number one presenting problem for both undergraduate and graduate students. Nearly 42 percent of college students will come for counseling attention for anxiety, 33 percent for depression, and 36 percent for relationship problems.” In other words, I was not alone in my initial panic as the semester began.
These mental health concerns can be even more pronounced for graduate students, because many are married, have full-time jobs, or shoulder significant financial responsibilities for themselves and others. In an Inside Higher Ed article entitled, “A Very Mixed Record on Grad Student Mental Health,” Colleen Flaherty writes, “From imposter syndrome and other feelings of being out of place, to periods of isolation and constant short-and long-term deadlines, graduate school presents serious potential challenges to students’ mental health.” My backpack obsession was really my worry over not fitting in and keeping up with coursework.
Kaylynne Glover, a PhD candidate in biology at the University of Kentucky and Director of Legislative Affairs for the National Association of Graduate-Professional students, was quoted in Flaherty’s article. In her interview, Glover asserted that graduate students can often feel “overburdened, with little to no allowance for a life outside of work.” I have a lot going on now, and even the coolest backpack may not help me manage it all (though I’m certain it will help!).
While my research has made me feel less alone, what helps me get around or through my anxiety is thinking about why I’m here. I enrolled in the MFA in Creative Writing program in order to get myself “unstuck.” I want to start writing under my own byline instead of giving my best efforts at my job, to work that carries someone else’s name. So, when I caught myself feeling this “backpack anxiety,” I heard the voices of my professors, and the words from the class readings and discussions, over and over in my head: Just Write.
So, I wrote about wondering whether graduate students need a backpack and worrying about whether my fellow novelists, poets, and essayists will like me. I actually wrote this very blog post as part of the Aspects of a Writer class, where the new MFA in Creative Writing students gather every Monday to consider our writing lives and professional goals.
Writing is Action
Basically, I did what Dr. Carolyn Forché, the renowned poet of witness and Chapman University Presidential Fellow, told us in her visit to our Aspects class at the beginning of this semester. When a student asked about how she dealt with her intense and highly charged subject matter without getting sucked into depression, her answer was, “Writing. Because writing is action.”
By taking the action of writing, I felt better. And, by the time I went backpack shopping (in time for the Aspects class photo) I was able to get one on sale at 60 percent off!