2018 marks two milestones in my life.
This past March, I turned 40, which everyone assures me is the new 30. (It’s also, unsurprisingly, the old 60, but no one wants to talk about that.) To celebrate my fortieth birthday, my husband attempted to coerce me into having a celebration worthy of the occasion, a lavish gathering of family and friends and colleagues, crammed into a modestly priced rental hall to eat finger foods we didn’t cook set to music we only vaguely remembered selecting. I refused. Does anybody really need to see me drunk and dancing awkwardly to another Macklemore song about inclusion? I don’t think so.
But more than that: there is nothing celebratory about turning 40. I don’t think becoming a particular age guarantees that you’ll be any good at being that age. What’s it called—the Peter Principal? Everyone gets promoted to their level of incompetence. I have been promoted to a new decade, and I have ZERO idea how to navigate it. Do I have to stop watching cartoons? Should I buy sensible shoes? Should I upgrade to a different color hat? And why are all these people honking at me to get into the center lane?? I might be terrible at my forties. I am unproven. I am untested. And all the fifty-somethings are snickering from the water cooler that I don’t have the chops to land the deal. If 1980s Billy Joel taught me anything, it’s that only the good die young; the incompetent, apparently, live forever.
The second milestone, perhaps the more impressive one since it took more effort than simply living, is my upcoming graduation from Goddard College with my MFA in Creative Writing.
(Holds for applause.)
After four semesters of annotations and packets and rewrites and Roberto-Bolaño-induced panic attacks, I will be crossing the finish line in July. I’m very excited. I’ve spent several long drives home from Vermont fantasizing about my graduate reading, about Commencement, about the two-minute speech I’ll deliver once the diploma is handed off. Sometimes, in these fantasy speeches, I’m sincere and earnest about my love of process. Sometimes I deliver an off-the-cuff spiel that elicits giggles from my peers and embarrassment from my husband. In every possible universe, I am crying; that, at least, appears to be inevitable. But regardless of how emotionally devastating my delivery happens to be, by sundown on July 1st I will have been bestowed the title of a Master of Fine Arts. A Master of Fine Arts.
(Holds for applause. There is none.)
Can I admit something?
I think I have just been promoted to my level of incompetence.
Despite the work and the effort and hundreds of chicken-scratch margin notes, I’m not entirely certain I can be considered a “Master” of anything—least of all, creative writing. There are days when I’m plugged into my laptop, tap tap tapping away, when the words just stop. And I can’t make them go again. Like, I’m trying to get my cat to do a trick. She’s sitting there, staring at me, and she knows I want her to do something, and she knows what the something is, but she ABSOLUTELY refuses to do it. If I can’t convince the words on the page to do what I want them to, then what sort of Mastery do I possess?
Let’s be honest, kids: At times, my writing is downright uncreative. Practically banal. I’m pushing through a scene in my thesis and I can feel each word land on the page with an audible “thud.” Lead-fingered. (Is that a phrase? It should totally be a phrase.) Do all writers experience this? Do we all wrestle with language in this way? I find it hard to believe that Dickens struggled with what words to use—mostly because it looks like he used ALL of them (ooooh—Dickens burn!). Some people describe the process of writing as if the language flows onto the page. Most days, my writing flows like an octogenarian with an enlarged prostate.
We come to Goddard to learn technique, to study craft, and how art and artifice come together to create something memorable. We read works of literature that inspire us and confound us and frustrate us and electrify us. We STEAL STEAL STEAL from the true Masters of our genre—the heralds, the innovators, the literary pioneers—but that does not make us one of them. This degree does not make us one of them.
(Pause. Uncomfortable murmuring from the G1s.)
So what does?
(Long silence. A single cough from the back of the house.)
I have a theory:
Mastery is not conferred with a Masters degree. The degree is only the first step toward achieving that goal. True Mastery of our craft can only occur if we continue to learn, to experiment, to evolve—like the literary equivalent of the dinos from Jurassic Park. Goddard has given us the tools to follow through: an introduction to the resources necessary to discover new techniques; the ability to critically analyze our own work; the permission to find the time we need to create. I think the incompetence of the Peter Principal only manifests if we stagnate—if we permit ego and experience to prevent us from examining the world around us, processing it, and filtering it through our art. As long as we remain open to new ideas and perspectives, we will live a life of endless promotions. We will be Cher.
I spent the first day of my fortieth year on this planet in New York City, surrounded by the NY Theaterati and a handful of my Goddard classmates, attending a reading of one of my newest plays. It slayed. Seriously, it did. And hearing the buzz in the room at the end… I had to take stock. Here I am, beginning a new decade of my life, gifted with a newfound sense of purpose that Goddard helped bestow. I am going to work my forties like Meghan Markle worked that wedding dress. I am going to become a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
Now let’s get drunk and dance.
Ian August is an award winning internationally-produced playwright. His full-length plays include: The Excavation of Mary Anning (Winner, 2018 ANPF and 2018 DVRF New Playwright Program, Semi-Finalist 2018 O’Neill Conference), Interviewese (Winner Garry Marshall Theatre New Works Fest, Finalist New Comedy Fest B Street Theatre), The Goldilocks Zone, (Passage Theatre Company, Semi-Finalist 2015 O’Neill Conference), Donna Orbits the Moon (NJ Repertory Company, Utah Contemporary Theatre; Barbour Memorial Playwright Award, 2010), Missing Celia Rose (NYC Summer Play Festival; Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s “Playfest 2009″; Bermuda Musical and Dramatic Society), Submitted by C. Randall McCloskey(2011 NY Intl. Fringe Festival), Natural History (2009 NY Intl. Fringe Festival), The Aisling (Winner 2009 Heiress Productions New Play Series), The Moor’s Son, Displaced, Brisé, and Cobbler. Mr. August’s YA play, Parker and the City in the Sea, will debut at the 71st Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in the summer of 2018. Other works have been published by Samuel French, Inc., The Pitkin Review, Smith and Kraus Publishing and the One-Act Play Depot. Mr. August is a founding member of the Princeton-based playwriting collective, the Witherspoon Circle and is a graduated member of the Philadelphia playwriting workshop, The Foundry.