Patientia: PhD Reflecting

Picture of Lisa Fay Author: Lisa Fay Coutley

It’s possible that I’m not the best person to ask about pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. When I think of it all now—two years of coursework, one year of intense reading—a month after finishing my comprehensive exams, I just feel exhausted. Then, as a single mother of two teen sons, I haven’t had your typical graduate student experience either.

If pressed to say more (which is the case, since I really haven’t reached my word count just yet), I would say that these have been some of my most trying (and maybe unhappy) years, yet at some point during my reading year I realized that this was also the greatest gift I could suffer through.

But let’s back up. Let’s start at the beginning. Let’s not pretend. I was once a happy and naïve undergraduate stoked to embark on the next big thing (grad school, of course), and I’ll never forget my mentor telling me (and me not fully comprehending) that during her MFA studies she thought she could never be busier. Then she entered a PhD program and was certain then that that was the busiest she could ever possibly be. Then she landed a tenure-track teaching gig (the ultimate dream for a PhD candidate, right?) only to discover that her life could, in fact, all but disappear.

I say this not to be discouraging, but because it’s the truth. When people ask me what I do, and I say I’m finishing my PhD in Literature and Creative Writing, they say, “Oh, wow! Look at all you’ve done as a single mom (blah blah blah)!” And I try to tell them that anyone can get a PhD. You simply must have an aptitude for torture. For self-annihilation. A touch of masochism.

I joke. Sort of. I guess I do say this to scare would-be PhD students who don’t want to give up nearly all of their personal time to teaching comp, to learning Latin or Spanish or French, to studying endlessly and discovering at some point during the first year that it’s not humanly possible to read all assigned texts, so you must decide which ones you want to seem smart about during class. You’ll go out less. You’ll have sex less. You’ll write less. It’ll hurt.

You have to like it. You really, really must want it. And I’m just not sure that I did. I found myself wondering what to do after my MFA. Everyone kept telling me (mostly professors) that because I’m tenacious by nature and had what it took to go the distance that I ought to go the PhD route. So in the final year of my MFA, I applied to twenty-plus teaching positions and six PhD programs. I figured I’d see what shook out and go from there. What else do creative writers do, especially those who aspire to teach and spend half of their lives grading just so they can talk about words and inspire young, eager writers, such as we once were? (Suddenly, I feel stupid old.)

Anyway, when Paisley Rekdal called from the University of Utah to say I’d been accepted to the PhD in Creative Writing (poetry), I was ecstatic for that opportunity. I hadn’t received a single request for additional materials from any of the teaching jobs, and as other PhD offers rolled in, it just seemed like the natural next step. I couldn’t have known how terribly difficult it would be for me to mother and read and (try to) write or how terribly difficult it would be for my sons to move from Michigan to Utah, to attend new schools, to stay afloat with a mom who worked endless hours every damn day. I still find myself wondering—as I’m about to enter the year of my PhD that I’ve been waiting for, during which I get paid to write a second full-length collection—was any of this worth it? Maybe there was something else—something that would have better fed my spirit and my writing and my family. I don’t know.

At the end of most days—and without going into the plethora of hardships my family has endured in the past three years—I still say yes. It was worth it. There were so many moments in the past few years when I wanted desperately to quit. I remember my first term of coursework, sitting in an undergraduate Latin class, discovering the small joy of translating certain words that were nothing more than approximations in meaning to the cognates we use each day. One of my favorites is patientia (from which we take patience), meaning suffering and endurance. And I think, Oh, I have suffered. I have endured. I have read intensely across my genre from Gilgamesh to the present and have learned more about the world and myself than I ever thought possible. It wasn’t fun a lot of the time, but then it seems that very often those things for which we grit our teeth and sprint through sand aren’t always as pleasurable as they are rewarding (after many post-exam naps, that is).

I’m sure these studies will make me a better professor should I be fortunate enough to find myself in a position in this very competitive market, but what’s equally, if not more, important to me is the way that I see the world in its panoramic history of joy and loss and struggle and endurance and myself within all of that light and chaos. I’m changed. Can I tell you it’s for the better, and you’d be a fool not to pursue a PhD in Creative Writing? Hell. No. We write in an unforgiving world. We teach to classrooms flooded by apathy. We compete for jobs (against our friends no less) in a saturated market. But if it’s your love, your life, and if writing isn’t something you do but is who you are, I believe—no matter the agony or the pursuit, steering clear of academia or diving face first—you are bound to find joy in the struggle. Such is life. We are fortunate to experience it as writers do.

*****

Lisa Fay Coutley is the author of In the Carnival of Breathing (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition. Her poetry has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, scholarships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, an Academy of American Poets Levis Prize, and has appeared recently in Sou’wester, Seneca Review, Ninth Letter, Best New Poets, and on Verse Daily. She is a PhD candidate and poetry editor for Quarterly West at the University of Utah.