When I first started my MFA program for Fiction Writing, I was three years out of college, and I wasn’t sure if I remembered how to be a student any more. I was also worried because I had been a Psychology and Math major as an undergraduate, meaning I did a lot of problem sets and research papers. With the exception of one Creative Writing class, I had taken absolutely no English courses in college. My only experience writing critical essays about literature came from senior year of high school, where I’d written an uninspired paper on The Great Gatsby.
I was also nervous because I would be taking my first two classes abroad. My program, the UNO Low-Residency MFA, required students to go abroad for three summers, and so I had signed up for two classes taught in Madrid, Spain: a fiction writing workshop and my very first graduate level English course, Expatriate American Literature. I was warned that the classes would be intense: a semester’s worth of material crammed into four weeks.
I decided I should do as much of the reading as possible ahead of time. It was only April, but I found the syllabus online and ordered all of the books. I read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Richard Wright’s Pagan Spain, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. By June, I had finished all the required texts. Being the Type A goody-goody that I am, I went back online to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.
The syllabus popped up, and I sat there, staring in confused horror at my screen. All of the books were different. Now it was A Moveable Feast by Hemingway and Going to Meet the Man by Baldwin. Pagan Spain and Tender Buttons were still there, but now there were new titles: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Shakespeare and Company, stories by Paul Bowles, Djuna Barnes, and Elizabeth Spencer. A jolt ran through my heart. Was I going absolutely insane?
I emailed the professor. “I’m a little confused,” I wrote. “When I looked at the syllabus in April, it listed different books than it does now. Can you please tell me the correct list of required reading?”
She emailed me back later that day. What I had looked at in April was the syllabus for the Spring semester. The syllabus online now was the correct one for the summer course. “You jumped the gun,” the teacher wrote. “Oh well, you read some extra books.” She didn’t seem overly concerned.
I, however, felt like the biggest idiot in the world. And now I didn’t have time to read all the required texts before heading off to Spain. Once again, being an anti-procrastinator had backfired.
I don’t know of a better word for myself than that: an anti-procrastinator. I pay my bills the day I get them. I respond to emails immediately. I am always early for everything – sometimes uncomfortably so. In fact, if it ever seems like I’m arriving on time somewhere, or even fashionably late, chances are I was sitting in my car, or taking walks around the block, waiting for the appropriate time to appear at the door.
Sometimes this is a good thing. I get good seats at the movies. When I was a teacher, the school secretaries were impressed with me for always being the first teacher to turn in administrative forms. My friends know that they can rely on me. (Of course, this just means I’m the one they ask to pick them up from the airport.)
Just as often, though, my anti-procrastination causes me embarrassment and frustration. In college, when classmates looked to me for commiseration: “oh my god, I haven’t even started that paper for Abnormal Psych yet, have you?” I would have to lie and say no, even though I had finished it weeks ago, perhaps even before it was assigned — admitting the truth would have caused me to be alienated and reviled by my peers. When I try to make plans with people months ahead of time, they often get annoyed with me (like my mother did back in September, when I tried to make her pin down her plans for Christmas.) I also get myself into situations like the one with the Expatriate Literature class. In fact, just yesterday I experienced one of my worst anti-procrastination moments ever…
Paul and I are going to New Orleans for New Years for the Burlesque Press Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball (and, of course, because New Orleans is an amazing and beautiful place filled with some of my favorite people in the world.) We had already bought our plane tickets a while ago, and the other day we were trying to figure out where to stay. My friends were being a little wishy-washy with their plans, and plus Paul and I figured we might want some alone time, so we decided to book a room for a few nights in a guest house near the conference hotel.
Because it was New Years, the price was a lot more expensive than I had hoped it would be. I considered waiting a few weeks, just to see what else might develop – maybe one of my friends knew of something better – but I was afraid of everything getting booked up for the holidays, and plus, I’m a damn anti-procrastinator (waiting is not in my nature) so I went ahead and paid for the (non-refundable) reservations.
Naturally, only hours later, I heard from a friend that she knew of an Air B&B place that was literally half as expensive as the guest house I had just booked. It was private (half of a duplex), in the same general location, and even included bikes that Paul and I could use.
I felt sick to my stomach.
“I just made a non-refundable reservation somewhere else,” I told my friend, feeling, yet again, like the biggest idiot in the world. If I had just waited. If I had not been quite so much of a eager beaver, trying to nail down all my plans months ahead of time, then I would be happily reserving a cheap, cute, convenient place to stay instead of staring mournfully at my receipt from the over-priced guest house (which does not, by the way, come with bikes.)
I emailed the owner of the guest house to see if he would make an exception and let me cancel my reservation. He told me no, the reservations are non-refundable. I can sell them to someone else, if I wish, or I can change them to different dates, but he ain’t giving given me my money back.
Why am I always punished for being on the ball and doing things in advance the way we’re taught to (but apparently no one does except for me)?
So I called the owner of the hotel, and after a somewhat emotional phone call, I got him to agree to give me a refund with a small(ish) cancellation fee. Whew! Now to book the cheap place! I went to Air B&B and stared in horror at the webpage. The place was cheap, normally, but not during New Years. During New Years, it was nearly as much as the Guest House, and with the cancellation fee I’d just paid, we wouldn’t be saving any money, and now we wouldn’t be getting a continental breakfast either. Once again, I had jumped the gun.
My friend Aaron says that I always end my blog with some little piece of wisdom that I have gained from my experiences. (“And that’s why,” I’ll say, for example, “I’m glad that the amateur masseuse gave me severe back pain….because in the end I learned something…”) So now I will dig deep and try to find the moral in this one…
I guess I could say that the universe is trying to tell me to calm down, to slow down, to live in the present moment a little bit more. Maybe it’s telling me to take time to think things over, to be patient with other people, to wait and see what happens sometimes. To not be so dern-tootin Type A, because the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.
Or, maybe the moral is this: life is annoying sometimes. Because I’m pretty sure all you procrastinators out there have just as many stories about times when things went crappy because you waited until the last minute.
And this story actually has a happy ending after all. I emailed the Air B&B guy, and out of the weird and wonderful kindness of his heart, he agreed to let me pay the normal cheap rate instead of the New Years rate. So it all worked out in the end. I suppose these things often do.