Why Did I Get a Master’s Degree in English? (I didn’t.)

Hello, nice to see everyone here being practical about our apparent delusions of grandeur. As a kid in middle school, I used to listen to T. S.  Eliot on a phonograph in a public library. On a bench as a very young child, I told my uncle, I wanted to be a writer. My mother said, I would spend long hours with books entertaining myself. My aunt said that I had the vocabulary of a doctor. My father was a doctor. I don’t know how many of you are like me. Professional parents, a disposition for beauty insulated from the real world. My father used to cut up dolls as a youngster. He kept cats in the refrigerator. There are early signs, at least for him, they were practical ambitions.

I think in the beginning we all relished the sacrifices poets made, starving, losing lovers, losing children. We loved the small hovels poets lived in, traveled by trains, hobnobbed with the literati because of their families. After my father died, I knew such dreams were no longer a reality. He left us with enough money for me to finish a BA in Speech. I thought I wanted to be an attorney, but I hated what I saw of law: Stacks of files before friends, who are so much more articulate and debonair. When I got a certificate in Paralegal Studies, I got an “A” in everything, except that when I finished my coursework all I wanted to do was read novels or philosophy, which I did and do even four years later.

At the university studying Speech, I took a Latin American Literature course instead of a second year of Spanish and Edgar C. Knowlton, the genius who he was, told me not to get a MA in Literature, but rather to write if that is what I wanted to do. I think what I relished as I did taking all the artistic photo classes at the University was the little group of labbies that had formed and who spent nights and days in the photo lab having parties and printing and processing together. Writers are less social. So, we met at writing groups and marveled at how good the writing was, and then went off to try to write like what we read in The New Yorker or literary journals because they changed our lives, made us feel.

If I look at the early lives of writers such as Eliot, I see a similarity except none of the famous names like Harvard or Oxford, “Publisher, playwright, literary and social critic and ‘arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century.'”

No, I don’t see any of that working for me and my ambitions.

I think as it is with art and artists, writers and writing, is that like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, only a few people can get to the top, where all their needs are met and the only thing left is self-actualization.

The cost is tremendous if we are not connected and financed. Even Virginia Woolf described “A Room of One’s Own.”

I’ve been working in a restaurant since I was 16, taken many a job, only to find that as a waiter, I was able to make enough money to buy a small condo and live out my life. I tried marriage; girlfriends come and go more often than not, and my financial advisor, a buss person with a million dollar house and many children said to me that my last phase should be to sell the current location in two years and then buy a duplex. When I am 65, that second unit will finance my freedom coupled with social security, if we can keep social security away from the Republicans. Meanwhile, I grow tired, mentally and physically.

Let’s face it, English/American literature is for us the cherry on top of a life that has been insulated by the lives of those who worked in the 50’s. The cost of living will rise and so will the quality of work become more menial. We’ve passed through a phase of insulated preeminence and even then writers starved and artists lived alone. We are the only ones who buy Literary Journals and novels written by the tried and true. Is there any room for the breadth of us?

There is a certain biological aversion to the self-indulgent person, who hides behind the third person. Even you and I are a bit sensitive to the stuff that is being played. Imagine the scrutiny of the masses? None of them have any sense of self and thus they are followers. But, what can we tell them that hasn’t already been heard? I have this ominous sense that our lives travel in circles. Where our country is on top of the world today, tomorrow, like the Chinese, we will be working in manufacturing plants, sleeping on cots and not knowing our neighbors. Kurt Vonnegut said it best in Player Piano that the world would be broken up into neighborhoods: “The wealthy upper class — the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines.”

It makes no sense to follow a line of thought that will only cost you in the end. Social Security will have been marketed. We’ll all be working for the rest of our lives succumbing to injuries we cannot tell for fear of loosing our jobs. Teaching literature in schools gutted by all the inessentials means that nothing will be left.

I have a friend from Columbia (the country) and he says that prosecutors and doctors are making less than anyone else. The world there is turned upside down. It all began with corruption. Poverty begets a lack of freedom and a lack of freedom makes for desperation. At least, in such a country great writers like Gabriel García Márquez make some of the best stories. We forget that as writers, just as photographers, the most decadent reality makes for the most interesting views. Gabriel García Márquez said, “Life has no limits.”

I suggest that as you choose your paths, you will not be able to escape your destinies. As a waiter, I know the hardships of reality. I know that my last days will be very painful. For I have chosen my “bliss” as Campbell said. But, he also said, as I have learned lately that, “During his later years, when some students took him to be encouraging hedonism, Campbell is reported to have grumbled, ‘I should have said, “Follow your blisters.”‘” (See: http://albert-ellis.blogspot.com/2008/04/art-and-irrationality.html)


6 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing with us so much about your personal life experience and thoughts. For those like me who have jobs we have chosen freely and, therefore, have become our passion or one of them, it is difficult to fully understand your situation. However we may try to empathize with it. You are right that our current world does not make it easy and that you need money to live. Still, you can and I think should definetely continue to develop your passion(s) like writing and art during those hours you are not working as a waiter. Never give up on your dreams even if they can only exist beside the so called “practical” job that brings you money to survive. Also, try to find some little joy at work. I am sure there are good moments. I think for me the greatest joy as a waitress would be to have the feeling I am making those people around me, that is, my clients, happy. I always want the people around me to feel good. As a foreign language teacher I relish the satisfaction on my students’ faces. That is when they are learning and feel truly motivated. That should also not be so different from the feeling of a waiter when clients are satisfied enjoying their meal in a lovely restaurant and being kindly treated. If some clients even treat you as kindly as I am sure you treat them I think this must be one of the best moments at work. Some students do not treat us teachers as kindly as we deserve, but others do. Is it not the same with waiters? As far as jobs that have more social prestige that is stupid. In my country teachers have lost their value. They are made responsible for all society’s evils. Many a time I heard someone tell me: Why are you a teacher? You could have a better job as a secretary of direction in an important company with your many foreign languages, you could earn much more money. Well, they can talk for hours because that is not what I want. Although I feel much more self-realised in my work than you, there are many people out there in the world who would dream of your life. For them things are and will be more painful. Sometimes we have greater possibilities to choose, others not so many, but I think we have to try to make the best out of each situation. I also love literature and philosophy. I would even feel more realised to have students with much higher levels in English and German than just the beginners I get each new schoolyear. But I can read literature at home and I can find a group of students outside of my work who have a higher level in a foreign language and teach them literature. That is what I have done this year and will continue to do. Always try to find a little improvement. I also like Gabriel García Márquez.

  2. I had a poetry teacher in college stop midsentence in a lecture, turn to the class with a puzzled look on his face. He said, “when you graduate, get as far from schools as you can! Get a job at a store or in a restaurant or something.”

    I didn’t I intend to take his advice, but still ended up doing what he said anyway. I just retired from retail, having worked many different jobs and experiences. Is that the road less traveled? I don’t know.

    I do know that we are given one life to live, one body, one aim, one hope.. Toward the end of our lives we find our souls planted exactly in one position, one place, the environment around us, the clay, the characters, the winds, the backstory that got us here. These elements are our only choice to enable us to add a flourish to our existence.

    I come from a working class family. I understand Chaucer better than T.S. Elliott. I am not well traveled, though I plan to visit Paris someday. So, as a fellow writer, I feel after reading this memoir that we, those far away and those close by, are nearer to each other, perhaps, than we Hought.

    • Yes, Donald, we are more similar than we know and we only do not know because we tend to keep to ourselves so that we can create. You in retail and I in restaurants, we garnered the truth about corporate life. We are the Barbara Ehrenreichs of the world. If we had gone for Masters degrees, we might have missed the information we were intended to impart or at least to regurgitate. Great writing by the way. I could picture your teacher turning around.

  3. Pingback: Poetic Resonance, Curiosity for Truth, and Mario Savioni – Words Words Words


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