There Was a Happy Time

It was quite a few years ago, in a place many blocks north of where you now live. The campus was like an enclosed city, magical. Your heart swelled while walking up or down the wide stone steps, unable to believe you were allowed to be there. The grass was green inside the stone walls, the trees blooming with flowers in springtime or strung up with lights when it was cold. The rooms had the largest windows, looking down over pathways and steps and iron gates, people like you and people nothing like you all milling about. In big rooms with wide wooden tables you got to read Jorge Luis Borges, Jean Rhys, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Saunders, Angela Carter, Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson… most of whom you had never read before. To discover each of their books in turn and wonder how you’d lived without them… incredible. The library had ceilings like a cathedral, and the fiction section was in a deep labyrinth of tunnels where you could be in the cool darkness for an hour without seeing another face between the stacks. Any book you could imagine at your fingertips, a new paper assigned? Good. You had keys and an ID card that could get you into any building you wanted, and sometimes you went there just to go there, just because you could.

This was grad school. For me, there was a moment — I remember it distinctly — when I knew it would soon be over, and I knew I had spent so much money I never even had (the vaporous fantasy of student loans don’t feel real till the bills start to come) and I knew it was impractical and it might turn out to do me nothing, and yet I told myself: Remember this time, how happy you are, because if you don’t, it’ll seem like it wasn’t even worth it.

I’m remembering it now.

I was so young, I didn’t realize life wasn’t really like this. You don’t get to read and talk and pass out photocopies of your stories in real life. You don’t have long stretches of time in which you can take a walk, or read another chapter, or stare out a window trying to come up with the most perfect sentence for that particular moment and page. “Living expense” money doesn’t grow on trees forever. People don’t hand out fellowships for good behavior no matter how hard you toil away at your thankless publishing job.

Maybe I could go back there. Maybe you can get four MFAs all in a row and each time you gain a different thing out of the experience: a new voice, a new skill, a new interest, a new box of pages you slaved over for years.

Very few people understand why I did this. For me, really, the only questions are: 1) How could I not? and 2) Can I do it again?

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