In the never-ending attempt to compartmentalize and label the “self” with an identity, I think “Graduate Student” or “Composition Teacher” are sometimes placed before “writer.” Even worse, those labels are more often than not placed before “human being.” This seems to be the over-arching lesson I am learning and experiencing this semester. As Graduate Teaching Assistants and MFAs, our lives are a hodgepodge of interdisciplinary chaos. Our routines might consist of a T/TH teaching schedule, a M/T/F graduate class schedule, extracurriculars, an outside job, community involvement, maybe a personal life, and oh yeah, don’t forget the actual act of creative writing. While these responsibilities are related, it’s possible for a creative writer submerged in academia—swimming through pedagogy, club responsibilities, and other variables—to experience a crisis of identity. Before I launch into this, I want to come right out and steal some lines from Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe: “What you do does not define who you are. Who you are defines what you do.”
It can be easy for us to neatly wrap ourselves up in the package of “Teacher” or “Student.” Like every human, no matter how much effort is put forth, no matter how A-type or meticulous we may try to be, there is no way to be the “perfect” teacher. There is no way to be the “faultless” student. Maybe we expect that of ourselves, and maybe we should strive for perfection, but ultimately, those pinnacles are unreachable. However, when those little (or huge!) inevitable human screw-ups occur, it might feel (at least it has for me) like the all the building blocks and identity packages come barreling down on our heads. Here lies the crisis. In flood the lies: “I’m a mediocre student. I’m an ineffective teacher. I’m an inefficient student-leader. Let me take a break and do some writing… oh crap, I’m a terrible writer!” Our world tailspins for a bit. “This is what I do! This is the path I’m on! What the heck am I doing?!” When our hearts are so wrapped up in an occupational identity, a simple incident like a professor’s poor opinion of us, a carelessly lost cell phone, an embarrassing mistake in front of twenty-two composition students can feel like the diagnosis of a terminal illness. We enter crisis mode for a bit (I’ve definitely driven south down A1A sobbing my eyes out, singing Jimmy Eat World’s “A Praise Chorus” at the top of my lungs in response to a screw-up). Now, I know I compared a teaching mistake to cancer, but therein lies the issue. A teaching mistake is NOT cancer! A professor’s poor opinion is NOT the finite definition of your character! And yet, if I’ve labeled myself as “good student,” then any failure can seem catastrophic and worth a sobbing/singing drive down an ocean road. Little failures (or epic fails!) at our occupation are NOT the defining moments of our lives. And yes, I will say, for some, there does come a point where one should reassess whether or not s/he should choose a different life path. But that reassessment should not come after an occupational screw-up. Failures happen (even to those GTAs and professors who seem superhuman). As artists, as members of the human race, we should always strive for perfection—that in no way means there is a perfect person. We are humans first. I am Renee Long: human, optimist, curly haired, sister, daughter, awkward goofball, slow mover, occasional forgetter, whale enthusiast, lover of words, clumsy dancer, laugher, crier, fashion idiot, and friend. Even though these labels are extremely reductive, it helps to remember: our identities are much more complex than we imagine.
When I sat down to write this entry, I was having a crisis of identity. Appropriately, as I opened the Word document to write down my thoughts on failures, Pandora Radio decided to play Modest Mouse’s “Float On.” So I will leave you with some wisdom from the great pop-culture machine:
“Bad news comes, don’t you worry even when it lands. Good news will work its way to all them plans. We both got fired on exactly the same day. Well we’ll all float on. Good news is on its way. And we’ll all float on, okay.”
Renee Long is a second year MFA focusing on fiction. She currently teaches college writing as a GTA and is the managing editor of FAU’s Coastlines Literary Magazine. If she's not on campus, you can usually find her reading on the beach, playin’ or listenin’ to music, exploring hidden coastal communities, and/or being a goofy nut-job with her friends.