The night of my graduation, I wrote:
My advisor just made me cry
Not cool. But awesome. But….wow
I want to share the rest of that story.
(I realize this is well into TL;DR territory, so I’ll understand if you scroll past without reading it. I needed to write it.)
That night after everyone else had gone to sleep I stayed up and wrote down what she said because I didn’t want to forget it.
Since then it has been sitting in my Drafts folder. Part of me thought that sharing it was… what?
“Arrogant”? Not quite.
“Prideful”? Eh, maybe a little.
Underneath all of the reasons that have a whiff of false modesty (and maybe even those which come with a hint of actual modesty) is the fear that I’ll share it, I’ll say how important it was — correction: is — to me, and then… not do anything about it.
On the flip side, I hope that by sharing it I will have another motivator to keep working at it.
After the graduation ceremony, there was a reception for the graduates and families. It was a mob scene. Too many people in too tight of a space.
I was ready to leave the moment that I arrived, except that I really wanted my family to get to meet Susan Kendall. She is the director of the D.Min. program. She’s also one of my favorite teachers of all time, one of those people who can push just the right amount in just the right way.
(Sort of like what good therapist does, except in the classroom.)
I have completely lost track of the number of times she has said something that made me just stop and think about something in a way that I’d never thought before. I knew we wouldn’t have much of a chance to talk, but I wanted her to meet my family (not just The Wife and The Boy, but also my mom and sister, who had come for the service), and I wanted them to meet her.
It took forever to find her, but I finally did, and waved until she saw me and made her way through the crowd. She came over, met everyone, said nice things about me to them, and posed for some pictures.
Other people were starting to gather around her and I knew they wanted her to meet their families as well, so I thanked her again and started to leave.
That’s when she stopped me, and said:
“I want you to keep writing. You have a gift, and I want to see you keep using it, keep developing it. I want to see it published. Keep working at it. Write every day, an hour a day, something. Keep at it. And if you want me to help you keep accountable for it, I’ll be happy to do that. I’m serious. This is why I do what I do.”
I don’t know how to say what those words meant to me. Maybe I don’t need to.
I first met Dr. Kendall several years ago when I was interviewing at the seminary. We immediately hit it off. I left her office knowing I wanted to go to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary because I knew I wanted to work with her.
She taught our first class in October 2007. It was the most fun I’d ever had, and some of the best conversations I had ever been a part of, in or out of academia.
I returned in January 2008 for more classes. Four of us went out for dinner: 2 classmates, myself, and Dr. Kendall. Before the food came, she talked to us about her vision for the specific program we were in, which she had created. She handed back our papers, giving each one of us some feedback and answering questions as she went. Mine was last.
As she handed it to me, she said, “You know you have a gift for writing, right?” I made the mistake of shrugging it off with a nod and a half-mumbled “yeah” as I took the paper.
Except that she didn’t let go.
Reading it now it sounds like a cheesy scene out of a movie, and it would have been, except that she wasn’t playing a scene, she was being serious. She didn’t like the fact that I was blowing off what she was saying.
“No, no,” she said, “You’ve heard this before, right? You have a gift for writing. You need to keep working at it, but this could be published, either as an article or as the first chapter of your first book. I’m not just saying ‘I like your writing,’ I’m telling you that it’s something you need to use.”
I’ve had people say they ‘like my writing’ for as long as I can remember, so maybe I had learned to take it for granted, but she got my attention. Instead of just letting it roll off, I believed her.
(Aside: Thinking back on both conversations now, I’m struck by the fact that her words move from “gift” to “work at it.” She said variations on that both times. It also occurs to me that I’ve been satisfied to stay at the level of ‘natural ability’ instead of ‘working at it.’ Probably because it’s easier and more comfortable to think of myself as having potential than actually doing something with it, and there’s little risk of failure. If something doesn’t go as well as I think it should have, I can always think, “Gee, if only I had really tried.” Filed Under: “coasting” and “being a dipshit”.)
A lot of time has passed since then.
When I was preparing to start my final project, she offered to be my advisor. “Just being nice,” I thought, since I had taken an extra year just to get to the “proposal” stage. She knew what I was thinking of doing, and figured it would be easier to be my advisor than it would be to make me find someone else. That’s what I told myself instead of thinking that perhaps she actually wanted to work with me.
Then the first draft of the paper came back with more “red ink” on it than I had ever seen in my entire life. That was all the stupid voice in my head needed. “See? Now she realizes that you’re way out of your depth. Bet she wishes she hadn’t agreed to be your advisor now.”
So I gave up. For a year.
There were several times when I didn’t think I’d finish, that I felt like I was wasting my time, and that my project was pretty much a failure anyway. Even worse, at some points I worried that even if I finished it, it wasn’t going to be very good. It was going to be a disappointment.
If you ever read something I wrote about struggling to finish (or doubting that I would) and thought that it was insincere handwringing, let me assure you, it was completely real. I did not think I was going to be able to do it. There were hours and hours and hours when I sat in front of the screen unable to produce a word. I’d write a sentence and then delete it. I’d write and delete a phrase five different times and delete it again. I’d find some meaningless distraction and spend hours not even trying.
Part of me wondered if they had just gotten to the point of wanting me to be done so they just approved whatever I wrote to get me to graduation. In hindsight I realize how stupid that sounds, because they kept offering more suggestions, corrections, and changes, but that doesn’t change the fact that I really felt that way at the time.
After all of that doubt and fear, I found myself standing in a crowd of people listening to her go out of her way to say (again): Keep writing. I’ll keep working with you.
Fortunately I held it together until after we said goodbye, because yeah, she totally caught me off-guard and made me cry in public.
The next day I posted that picture of President Bartlet with the caption “What’s next?” because that question was weighing heavily on me, especially in light of Dr. Kendall’s words.
What am I going to do next?
I wrote this the night of graduation:
I don’t know what’s next. I don’t really even want to think about it right now. But there will be something. Because she’s a gift. And I’m not going to let her offer of help go unused.
Three weeks later I still don’t know, but the question isn’t going away. I don’t know if I know “the” answer, but here are some plans:
I’m also going to say “no” to an offer to start a new thing that someone had asked me to do, because it’s not pushing me further towards the right Next Thing. It has been sitting in my email for awhile and I never really felt right about it, but once I started writing this and realized what I want to do, then it became obvious that this thing doesn’t fit.
So, if you’ve wondered where I was for the past few weeks, I’ve been rattling around inside of my brain. I didn’t really intend to be “gone” that long, but, well, there it is. Not to mention the budget stuff I’ve been dealing with in preparation for our new fiscal year on July 1st. More on that after our meeting on Sunday.