af•ter•math (ăf’tər-măth’) n. 1. A consequence, especially of a disaster or misfortune: famine as an aftermath of drought. 2. A period of time following a disastrous event: in the aftermath of war. 3. A second growth or crop in the same season, as of grass after mowing.
It doesn’t seem possible that it’s spring again. It feels like only a few weeks have passed since I wrote my New Year post on Archetype. “Writing in the Aftermath” (much of which is included herein) described both the freedom and melancholy of life immediately beyond graduate school and acknowledged with bittersweet sentiment all that had come to fruition during the previous twelve months. Those were audacious days, and it wasn’t at all lost on me that I had bitten off more than I should have been able to chew, let alone swallow.
In addition to professional and personal events and milestones, 2014 marked the culmination of so many long-pursued creative endeavors and academic “lasts.” I took my last class of Chapman’s dual MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing program that spring, a delightful independent study of seven major works of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. I wrote the last chapters required for my MFA thesis and defended it successfully in November. I had my last meeting with professors I have revered and appreciated intensely for six years and stood in familiar classrooms one last time, memorizing the sounds and smells I had grown to cherish and rely on for inspiration. Gazing out their windows that last day, I saw the ghosts of my Chapman friends who had sat with me, night after night, glassy-eyed and starving, too, as they pursued their dreams alongside me. A few are still there, but most have also graduated and moved on. And, with a lump in my throat and a heavy heart, I walked across campus for the last time, feeling just as Billy Collins describes in “Writing in the Afterlife”:
I knew I would not always be a child
with a model train and a model tunnel,
and I knew I would not live forever,
jumping all day through the hoop of myself.
I had heard about the journey to the other side
and the clink of the final coin…
I’ve spent the first five months of each of the last six years attending spring classes, studying for exams, and writing critical essays and my fiction thesis – essentially jumping through the hoop of myself as the weather warmed. With the program now completed, the usual frenetic velocity (and slight self-absorption) of the months has waned, and I find myself with time to read and write at a more leisurely pace and reflect on what’s next. There have been moments of panic since November, to say the least. Concerns about what I will do and how productive I will be without the demands of writing workshops and professors and course deadlines goad me. I still have the English department’s marketing flyer from 2008 tacked to my bulletin board above my writing desk. “Write your own success story,” it had urged (and still does). That had done it for me seven years ago. I enrolled that fall and proceeded to write my own narrative, nearly two hundred pages of which comprised my MFA thesis. But the story isn’t finished, not even close, and I’ll need to dig deep to keep up the writing momentum on my own – to maintain the grass, so to speak.
Sleep was somewhat of an initial priority in the wake of my defense. I’ll admit I was tired. Not so much my body, but my mind and my soul were simply sapped from the years of constant thinking and creating and feeling. Completing this program is akin to finishing a great book. You’re intellectually and emotionally depleted from staying up too late for too many nights, absorbed, but you’re also sad and sort of lost when you close the pages for the last time, and you hunger immediately for another great book, despite your burning eyes.
After a brief time of rest, a shiny new list with even loftier aspirations has emerged, just as I knew it would. There are countless submission opportunities to explore, conferences and lectures to attend, topics to research, short stories and blog posts and newspaper columns to write, my current manuscript to finish, and the seeds of a new novel to water and nourish. And, quite unsurprisingly, the academic rigors of PhD candidacy beckon. In the words of Lily Briscoe (ah, my dearest Lily!), where to begin?
This month I began where I always begin – with an Excel spreadsheet. I constructed an immensely long and ridiculously ambitious reading list, including but not limited to several Best of anthologies, Seven Types of Ambiguity, The Rhetoric of Fiction, compilations of Flannery O’Connor’s and Joyce Carol Oates’s short stories, Infinite Jest (moved to the top of the stack after meeting Franzen, who said he wrote The Corrections as a counterpunch to DFW’s literary behemoth), and numerous works of literature that comprise the GRE study plan and/or my shame list of unread classics.
Added to the spreadsheet were writing events, assignments, and other tasks all designed to eradicate the sudden stillness and stoke the creative embers. I have registered for the Orange County Christian Writers Conference again this year, reconnected with several local authors, and am dabbling once more in short fiction via a workshop with my writer friend Ian Prichard. But it’s my unreconciled protagonist’s voice in my ear that gets louder and more insistent every day. New pages and chapter revisions await my focus with growing impatience. I work well with deadlines – even self-imposed ones – and have therefore established a target date of January 31, 2016 for my second crop of this creative season.
So the first year sans graduate school – at least for now – still awaits its first indelible mark. But I am poised with pen at last, ready to make it.
Michelle Arch is a guest blogger for TreeHouse. She recently completed her Master of Arts in English and Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Chapman University. She holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration and a Bachelor’s degree in Theatre and English from California State University, Fullerton. Arch is a member of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW), the Modern Language Association, and the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society.
Her current projects include a portfolio of short stories, poems, and critical essays, many of which explore themes of identity and self-definition and the study of mimetic imagery, and a novel. Arch has presented her work at the 2010 and 2011 Sigma Tau Delta International Conventions in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, the Sigma Tau Delta 2011 Regional Conference in Orange, California, the 2012 John Fowles Literary Forum, and the 2012 Big Orange Book Festival. Her work is also published regularly on the ACFW website and in the Orange County Register.
An excerpt from her novel, Time of Death, won First Prize in the Fiction Writing Contest sponsored by The Editorial Department, Second Prize in the WestBow Press Writing Contest, and Third Prize in the Beverly Bush Smith Aspiring Writer Award competition at the 2012 Orange County Christian Writers Conference in Newport Beach. To visit her website and blog, Archetype, go to http://www.michellearch.wordpress.com/.