My Big Debt to GrubStreet? Grub is Compass and Lifesaver
Writer Shawnna Thomas reflects on her year as the very first recipient of GrubStreet's Emerging Writer Fellowship. The Fellowship, instituted in 2017, is aimed at developing new, exciting voices by providing one writer per year tuition-free access to Grub classes and the Muse conference. When Shawnna applied for the fellowship, she was bruised from an unsuccessful MFA application and unsure how to move forward as a writer. In her fellowship year so far, she has found new literary passions, a clearer sense of direction, and that all important magic ingredient: community.
Imagining life after graduation was a favorite pastime for me during my senior year of college. I would be accepted into the MFA program of my dreams, start a novel there that I would eventually publish, sell short stories to all my favorite literary magazines, and then “life” and all its “excitement” would really start.
The months and weeks and days before graduation were full of excitement for my friends and me. They were captured and cropped and hashtagged with words like #promising, #potential, and #careergirls.
But the cold reality of the days and weeks and months that followed were filterless, underdeveloped snapshots in an abandoned darkroom, accompanied only by broken promises, wasted potential, and the drudgery of being ungainfully employed. We were aimless, or purposeless, or wandering. Definitely wandering.
That first year had started with direction. I had excitedly applied to MFA programs in my first round of what we called the “MFA Draft,” and felt blessed many agonizing months later to receive an acceptance letter. Until I realized there was no way I could afford to attend.
I told myself I would try again, that I would have better luck the next round.
The rejection was swift the second time around.
Well, no, that isn’t quite true. It actually took much longer to receive the form rejection e-mail that second round of the MFA Draft than the one acceptance e-mail I’d received the year before. And when it finally arrived, the short paragraph didn’t mince words, sparing neither feelings nor aspirations, beginning something like: “Dear applicant, we regret to inform you…” and ending something like, “Better luck next year.”
Or maybe the letter was much nicer and it was just the disappointment that punched me in the gut.
The year before, I had made it through MFA draft with an acceptance to a school I could not afford even if I pooled all my resources from this lifetime and my next. That realization felt more like an accidental elbow to the abdomen than the proverbial gut punch. It bruised, but I didn’t keel over. I simply repeated, “Next year, next year” to myself, certain I could come up with the money and reapply and earn a spot in the MFA program of my dreams. I just needed to win the lottery and, considering the Creative Writing MFA acceptance odds looming before me, win the lottery again.
Next year, next year, next year.
Except that it was next year and I hadn’t won the lottery or earned a spot at an MFA program either. Except that it was next year and I had no idea what to do next. Except that it was next year and I had never felt so lost.
That weekend, my friend Bash and I convened at the Brigham Circle TGI Friday’s bar, where we can almost always be found. We don’t go to Friday’s for the food; we go for the company and the conversation. If you ask us, it’s Roxbury’s answer to Cheers. We sat in our usual corner spot, ate our usual meals—Bash picking at her seafood pasta, me the seasoned fries, and complained about our usual grievances: “I hate my apartment / I hate my hair / Let’s go somewhere! / I feel like such a failure.”
Failure was a common topic of our conversations back then. Maybe it’s the mark of the millennial to see every slight or setback as a sign of an impending doom, but, as far as we were concerned, whether we got low grades on a test or broke a nail while trying to open a can of ginger ale, we were failures. If our complaints were songs, than failure was the refrain.
Only the words sounded different that night.
Only the words hurt different that night.
It used to be a tiny sting, wrapped so tightly in my optimism that I could barely feel it. But that night, the cruel words spread their wings, bouncing off and splitting open the walls of my optimism cocoon in cacophonous triumph.
Failure! Failure! Failure!
Over dessert, I admitted to Bash that an MFA program just “wasn’t in the cards” for me next year. She asked what I planned to do next instead. All I had talked about since graduating from college was applying to an MFA program, publishing a story in The New Yorker, watching my writing career take off. At least that’s how it was supposed to go, I’d gleaned from conversations I’d overheard during my undergrad years and the forums I’d encountered online. That was how you were supposed to launch a writing career. I shrugged. “Wing it, I guess. I’m not worried. Things always work out.”
I was worried. I didn’t know what I was doing if I wasn’t writing, I didn’t know what writing looked like outside of a workshop setting, and that didn’t seem to be an option anymore. I felt like a failure.
Almost a month later, Facebook suggested that I attend the first meeting of the GrubStreet Writers of Color Group. I marked myself as “interested,” unsure. I had heard of Grub in passing. As a writer and a Boston native, it was impossible not to have. But because the majority of my writing had taken place at 3 a.m. in a dark, closet-sized dorm in New Haven, and had consisted of squeezing out four more pages in time for my required workshop submission a few hours later, the Boston literary scene was unknown territory for me. I had barely navigated the undergraduate literary scene comfortably. The idea of finding a writing community excited and terrified me. I was excited because I loved writing and hadn’t had a chance to “talk shop” since undergrad. I was terrified because the MFA rejection wound was still tender, because I didn’t feel a sense of purpose or direction in my writing at the time, and because I had no idea what a writing community outside of a university workshop felt like, especially not one that seemed to be actively seeking people like me.
In the end, I sucked it up and went and effectively changed the course of my writing career and my life. The first meeting intrigued me enough to research Grub and keep up with its happenings, even after I realized the Group meetings would conflict with my work schedule. In my research, I discovered that Grub offered scholarships and would be launching the Emerging Writer Fellowship. I took a chance on myself and my writing, entered, and shockingly won the fellowship. I think I actually did a dance when I received the email, some cross between the Cabbage Patch and the Harlem Shake with an attempt at a Dougie thrown in. For the first time in a long time, I felt confident and competent. And for the first time, I started to question how much control I was letting my MFA program rejection and my understanding of what the trajectory of a writing career was supposed to look like have over how I felt about myself, my writing, and my potential to grow as a writer.
The first few months of the fellowship were a bit of a whirlwind. My first toe-dip into the Grub and Boston literary communities was at the literally jaw-dropping Muse and the Marketplace Conference in early May. I had never been to a writing conference before, and so had never realized how many people—short and tall, children and senior citizens, black, white, orange, and purple—were growing or had already established writing careers and didn’t have to attend an MFA program or be published in The New Yorker to do it. More importantly, it was the first time and place I realized that I was part of a writing community, and that as long as I was writing, wherever I was writing, I was a writer.
The variety of classes I have been able to take at Grub and the variety of workshop mates I have befriended have been the highlight of my fellowship experience by far. Because Grub is open to the community, your workshop mate could just as easily be your next-door neighbor or a retired surgeon as an MFA program applicant or graduate. And for the first time, I encountered many more writers who looked and sounded like me and shared similar experiences of growing up in Boston, which was rarely if ever the case in undergrad. As a result, it was easy to feel comfortable, to build a rapport and relationships that extended beyond the workshop to city politics, to comparing nightclubs, to BLA vs. BLS and everything else in between. It was also easier to learn from my workshop mates, and to realize that I had my own valuable experiences and knowledge base to draw from that might be helpful to share as well. Initially, I was hesitant and quiet in my classes, but, by my fourth class, not only had my writing improved, but my confidence had improved.
Furthermore, my writing interests have expanded. I’ve just completed my first science fiction and fantasy course, and am impatiently waiting for part two to launch. A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to list three examples of sci-fi/fantasy books, and now I can have full-length, heated debates about who wrote the better biopunk novel, and I owe that to Grub.
But my biggest debt to Grub is for its role as compass and lifesaver for me at a time where my confidence in my writing and my potential had never been so low. This fellowship has been the battery pack I needed to remind me that I am a writer whether I am inside an MFA program or outside of it, and it will be the foundation of the writing career I know I will be able to launch now if I remain consistent and confident and stay the course GrubStreet has helped me find.
Maybe I will apply and be accepted into an MFA program in the future. Maybe I won’t. The difference now is, I know I will be okay either way. I will get my message out in the world either way. I will improve and grow as a writer either way.
The difference now is, when I’m chomping on French fries over the bar at Friday’s with Bash, I am raving excitedly about Grub and about my fellowship being the best experience I’ve had in 2017.
The difference now is, no matter how far I wander or stray off-course, how many secret passages or dead-ends I encounter in my writing journey, I have a home, a community, and a safe-space in Grub. Now, I will never truly be lost.
Shawnna was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. She received her B.A. degree in English and African American Studies from Yale University in 2015. She is a recipient of the Elmore A. Willetts Prize for Fiction and the Second Place Wallace Prize for Fiction. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories.
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