You are the recipient of this year’s writing fellowship. You, of all people. You, who spent the last six months sleeping in your childhood bed, the door ajar so the cries of your sick mother could find you in the night. You, who learned so young to wish for the opposite of what you wanted, because none of your wishes ever came true. You have been selected from among hundreds of applicants—aspiring novelists, poets, playwrights—to represent the arts at an elite boarding school for the academic year. When they call to give you the news, say thank you.
Then say thank you again and again the day you arrive on campus.
Pinch yourself. When you applied for this fellowship you were still living in Ann Arbor, your mother was healthy in Connecticut, and your writing was getting you exactly nowhere. But you’re here now, in the nation’s capital, at this private all-boys school that appears in newspapers often and never without “tony” preceding its name. You went to a public agricultural school—Cow Pie High, your rivals called it—and some future farmer might have hammered your face like a fence post if you’d dressed in a blazer with a red-and-white-striped liner, the way they do here.
Go to Target. Buy yourself a blazer. No one will know where it’s from, though you’ll think: Everyone knows. This is how it will hit you that you are really back in high school. At the end of the semester, when your blazer has frayed from daily wear, snag a brand-new one from the lost and found. Hold your breath for weeks hoping the rightful owner doesn’t recognize it. Then exhale. The boy has so many more, he’ll never know he lost it. They always have more.
Dan Quayle went to this school. The kids here wear khakis on the weekends.
The only other adults you’ll see most days will be the two dorm parents—both named Chuck. You will live alongside the international students and the scholarship kids. Don’t forget: You are a scholarship kid. You will wait in line with them for soggy eggs in the morning and mysterious noodles at night, but you won’t eat with them in the wood-walled refectory. You will take your plate up to your room. The Chucks will eventually stop insisting you’re welcome to join them at the grown-up table, but don’t feel bad. Eat your food. Close your door. You have come here to write. There is a novel in you. Mine yourself. Strike that story gold.
Write on the wall: This Can Be Anything.
Write on the wall: Make It Real.
By the time you welcome the only visitor you will ever have in this room, your long-distance girlfriend who hates to talk on the phone, you will have forgotten those notes still adorn the wall. You will look crazy to her. But she went to a school like this. She’s Ivy League. Her parents are lawyers. Her friends’ parents are lawyers. Why, you’ll wonder, is everyone a lawyer? Don’t ask her that. And don’t try to explain the notes. She won’t get them anyway. She’s a lawyer, too. So, laugh along with her. Those crazy writers. Taking it all so seriously.
Pretend it’s all a joke. But nothing about this year is funny.
Come June, when it’s time for you to leave, you have no idea what you’ll do for money.
Your five-year plan is a this-year plan. This is it.
Sit at the desk they’ve given you, the desk where thirty-one writers have sat before you, some who have gone on to acclaim, others you’ve never heard of. You don’t know it yet, but five years from now, you will still be dating the same woman and working on the same novel. At three different points in those five years, you will have convinced yourself you’ve finished writing it. Each time, you’ll have been wrong. But for now, keep your head down, your coffee cup filled, your legal pad spilling over. Go for walks. Walks are free. Then get back to work.
And if you ever forget to say thank you, remember this: that twelve-hour drive from Ann Arbor to a hospital in Connecticut. On this drive to your unconscious mother, and the childhood home you would call home again for the next six months, you saw yourself in old age.
Do you remember?
You saw yourself growing old alone and poor, like your mother. You promised yourself that if you didn’t get some validation, some sign that you should keep writing by the time you turned thirty, you would give up for good. You would find something more sensible to do with your life, something with an actual career path, something stable, lucrative. Law school, maybe.
Ten days before your thirtieth birthday, with your mother finally recovered, they called to give you the news. When you hung up, you thought: This can be anything. Make it real.
And thank who? Thank you.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS/SHANKAR S.