Jacob Scheier is a poet, essayist and journalist and past winner of the Governor-General’s Literary Award. His most recent book is Letter From Brooklyn.
Grad school almost killed me. Hackneyed? Maybe. Hyperbole? No. I was hospitalized twice during my three years at The Ohio State University. I officially graduated in May.
I anticipated my MFA being stressful. I did not expect to barely make it out alive, although perhaps I should have seen that coming.
Over the nine years I have spent in academia, as an undergrad and graduate student-teacher, I have endured bouts of both physical and mental duress, leading to a major surgery and a six-week leave, part of which was spent in an in-patient psychiatric ward.
I don’t mean to suggest that my particular program – an MFA in creative non-fiction – caused these health problems or even that graduate school in general is to blame – not entirely. But the stress of school was a contributing factor to my already precarious physical and mental health.
It’s been a challenge my entire adult life, as an artist with chronic physical- and mental-health issues, to earn a living. The precariousness of my health makes it hard to hold down a steady job. My artistic craft – mostly poetry – is not valued, at least financially, in our culture. It’s difficult, at times, to feel like a productive member of society. And so, my relationship to academia is somewhat ambivalent – it has given me a certain amount of stability and it’s come at a cost.
I know it was not nearly as rigorous as a master’s degree in, say, English literature, but research-based MFA programs, such as the kind I did, are intense. To earn my monthly stipend, I taught one undergraduate course a semester. Most of my teaching assignments were freshmen writing classes – approximately 25 freshmen a semester, which means hours and hours of grading – on top of my course work. Plus there is the expectation students will do CV-bolstering extracurricular work.
It’s not uncommon – perhaps it’s even expected – that graduate students sacrifice at least some self-care (particularly sleep) as part of the bargain, and this is more manageable for those with, say, healthy immune systems and a psychological resilience to stress. Having such a busy schedule made it difficult to do the things that help me look after my health, such as proper diet, regular exercise, getting adequate sleep and a consistent mindfulness practice to help manage my anxiety.
So why I have spent so many years in school, when I know how taxing it can be on my mental and physical health?
The answer in part, is just a lack of imagination. My adult life as, ostensibly, a starving artist, and all the chaos that entails, had become so impractical that doing an MFA actually became the most practical thing I could think of doing at this stage of my life; I’m nearly 40 years old. It seemed like my best (though by no means safe) bet on getting a secure (teaching) job. Prior to starting my MFA, I had found various alternatives over the years to not working myself sick while (barely) making ends meet, but they were very taxing to my well-being. And so, I ultimately decided, grad school was my best option.
In 2004, while attempting to complete my undergraduate degree, my Crohn’s disease flared up badly enough for me to require major surgery. Shortly afterward, I had a depressive episode that was severe enough to require hospitalization. I dropped out of school.
Around the same time, I read an article about one of my literary heroes, Allen Ginsberg. In 1954, a young, depressed Ginsberg told his psychiatrist: “I would really like to stop working forever – never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I’m doing now – and do nothing but write poetry and go to museums and see friends… Just a literary and quiet-city-hermit existence.”
His psychiatrist surprised him by saying, “Well, why don’t you?”
He did. And so I did, too. For about a year, thanks to a small inheritance, I wrote poems. My health steadily improved, both physically and mentally. Eventually, the inheritance dried up and so I went back to school and finished my BA; I didn’t know what else to do.
In the years following my undergrad, I pieced together a living as a writer through a combination of freelance work, arts grants and teaching. I published a collection of poetry. I managed, just barely, to make ends meet.
During these years I often considered getting an MFA, the minimum credential necessary to get a salaried position teaching creative writing in a university or college. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. W.H. Auden famously wrote, poetry "survives/In the valley of its own making where executives/Would never want to tamper…” I felt you could easily substitute the term “executives” for “university administrators.” In other words, I felt that writing poetry was a kind of sacred act, which was cheapened by credentialism. One might say I was a bit of a purist. But that started to change a few years ago. I found myself sinking into debt. I began to conveniently soften my position. I accepted an offer to Ohio State’s creative-writing program.
Again, however, illness got in the way. I was supposed to start in the fall of 2015, but I was too sick. Another Crohn’s flare-up and, eventually, my second hospitalization due to a severe major depressive episode. Instead of starting grad school, I went onto the Ontario Disability Support Program, or ODSP.
It was a strange gift of this body – its dysfunctional immune system and brain-chemical deficits allowed me to return again to a literary and quiet-city-hermit-existence. I wrote and read a lot – I just wasn’t producing something with much (or really any) market value.
I was eating and sleeping better than I had in a long time. I had even started to reduce my anxiety medication. Perhaps my body was trying to tell me not to pursue that MFA.
I started writing in high school. My mother, the late poet, critic and feminist activist, Libby (Liebe) Scheier, read some of my very early poems – and while one’s own mother might not be the most fair-minded critic of her only son’s poems, I actually think she was disappointed or rather anxious to discover, for my age, they weren’t terrible. She did not merely praise me but offered some advice born out of her own bitter experience: “These could be published,” she said, "but please don’t try to do this for a living: There’s no money in it, and writers can be very difficult people.” My mother wasn’t always the most tactful person – she was a Brooklyn-born Jew, after all.
My mother, however biting, had a point, which I’ve come to reframe as this: Writing takes a lot from you in a myriad of ways. You start out by doing the thing you love, and the thing you love is treated with indifference by most people, except – for poetry, especially – its practitioners, who love it perhaps a bit too much. Writing insists on time and energy, which there is only so much of and is needed for other aspects of living, including, of course, looking after one’s own physical and mental health.
I considered instead of starting my MFA in 2016, just living a quiet-hermit city existence by staying on ODSP – perhaps for the rest of my life. I was worried what the stress of school could do to my health. But being on ODSP was far from an idyllic alternative. First of all, it’s essentially a vow of poverty. Each month, you receive what is supposed to be enough money for necessities: shelter, food and clothing (additional funds for special diet and transportation can be applied for). The shelter allowance is just less than $500 a month for one person. This is how much they apparently expected me to pay for rent, including utilities, in Toronto, where the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment is more than $2,000. I paid significantly more than $500 to rent a tiny room in a house with a moderate cockroach problem. I couldn’t afford to buy new – or, for that matter, second-hand – clothes. I did my best to tell myself that rips and permanent stains in my clothes were part of my Ginsberg-esque, bohemian lifestyle. A friend cut my hair. There are few things you can say this about: being a poet was more lucrative.
But what pushed me to get off ODSP, more than the poverty itself, was a growing feeling of shame. There was a part of me that, I realize now, despite having very progressive politics and being a (secular) Jew, unconsciously believed in at least a form of the Protestant Work Ethic: the idea that hard work and material success is a moral good.
The sociologist Max Weber made the case that the Protestant Work Ethic paved the way for modern capitalism. “Work” is interchangeable, in our society, with earning. I knew, no matter how much effort I put into my poems, that in the eyes of many people I wasn’t working; I was taking.
I felt split between staying on ODSP or starting graduate school – as though my internalized work ethic were squaring off against the quiet-city hermit. In an inner screaming match between the two, the hermit really didn’t stand a chance – he is after all, well, quiet and, some might say, kind of lazy.
I became increasingly aware of the judgments of others – whether it was a patronizing comment from an ODSP case worker, or a well-meaning question from a friend, such as, “Don’t you want to have your own money? I mean you could work.” And sometimes people were just mean. I remember going out with friends and deciding to have one beer. Someone at the table said she didn’t want her tax dollars to pay for me to drink.
I didn’t date for a long while, although I wanted to. As old-fashioned as it might be, I felt ashamed I couldn’t ask a woman out for dinner – I wouldn’t even be able to afford to go Dutch. And that made me think about the future. It was difficult to conceive of having a family. I could barely support myself. Being unable to plan my future made me anxious. In other words, the life of the quiet-city hermit brought its own kind of stress, not to mention low-self esteem.
Pushed by shame and anxiety, I started my MFA in the fall of 2016.
I was frustrated, although not surprised, when the Doug Ford government cancelled the Ontario basic-income (UBI) pilot project last summer barely a year after it was introduced. The three-year project, an initiative of Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government – ousted in the most recent provincial election – gave a basic income (up to $16,989 a year for an individual, while couples could receive up to $24,027) to 4,000 low-income residents in Hamilton-Brantford, Lindsay and Thunder Bay. It’s really a shame it wasn’t permitted to run for long enough to get results, as I think therein might lie at least part of the solution for people such as myself: those who have chronic illness or illnesses and also contribute to society – just not in a way that is of value to the market.
Presently, U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang is the most prominent proponent of UBI (or what he calls “the Freedom Dividend”), which is the key policy proposal of his platform. Mr. Yang’s central case for UBI is that it’s necessary, since automation will be the end of millions of working-class jobs, from manufacturing to retail. He hasn’t mentioned, and may not be aware of, UBI’s mental-health benefits. Mr. Yang, if elected president – something highly unlikely, as he is only polling around 2 per cent in the primary race – would give every U.S. citizen US$1,000 a month, regardless of income. Conversely, only low-income residents were eligible for the Ontario basic-income project. Although giving $1,000 to everyone costs taxpayers more and is also, at a certain point, absurd (e.g. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos would be getting US$1,000 a month), it certainly makes it a more popular idea across the political spectrum. The biggest problem I have with Mr. Yang’s approach to UBI is that he plans to pay for it, in part, through increased sales taxes – something that would be felt most by the poor.
One of the most expected criticisms of universal basic income is that, as George Zarkadakis puts it in an article for HuffPost titled “The Case Against Universal Basic Income,” it will lead to “a life of idleness.” Instead of working, the poor recipients will “stay home and play video games all day.”
But I think such assumptions are off-base. In a guaranteed-income experiment in Dauphin, Man., in the 1970s, very few people stopped working, although some quit demeaning low-paid work and held out for better jobs. Most importantly, over the three-year study, rates of depression, anxiety and other mental illness fell, according to journalist Johann Hari. “Severe financial anxiety is one of the factors that has been proven to cause depression,” Mr. Hari says in an article for Vice titled “Why Basic Income is a Mental Health Issue.”
If I had a livable guaranteed income, I would, of course, keep writing. I would also teach, sometimes, but with a less gruelling schedule. I would, in turn, be able to give my students more of my time and energy. I’d also like to do more volunteer work (and not for the sake of bolstering my CV). In short, a modest basic income would help me not only be in better health but to actually contribute (qualitatively) more to society – a dignified and “productive” quiet city-hermit existence, if you will.
I ultimately just want to do something I find meaningful and feel well (or at least not very ill) at the same time. Is it a radical belief to feel entitled to the pursuit of meaning and wellness? Don’t I deserve that? Don’t we all?
When I started my MFA, I thought of it as a kind of a necessary evil. As I said, I knew grad school would be a lot of work, but wasn’t prepared for just how much, particularly the teaching. After teaching freshmen composition three times, I finally got to teach a creative-writing workshop – and I remembered how much I love helping young people cultivate a love of writing and literature, even if I fear I am inviting them into a slightly Faustian bargain: maintaining the integrity of one’s soul, at the cost of one’s marbles.
And despite its demands, there is a lot to be said for how accommodating to disabilities, in my experience, the derisively termed “ivory tower” is. Considering I was paid a livable wage as a graduate teaching assistant and given a lot of accommodation and compassion for my health problems, the "ivory tower,” despite how stressful it can be, is also a kinder place than the “real world.” Some of my faculty reached out to me in my time of crisis – had coffee with me, took me out for meals and let me come to their office and talk at length about how much I was suffering; they reminded me, by remaining present and checking in with me, that, despite the self-loathing and feelings of worthlessness that are typical of a depressive episode, they believed in me. I tend to complain about the plainness of the Midwest. Columbus, Ohio, is not exactly a cosmopolitan city, but several people, when I was in trouble, were good to me out here. I’ve always depended, you could say, on the kindness of gentiles.
I am worried about leaving the shelter of the ivory tower – whether it be back to the world of snide ODSP case workers or the freelance world with its deadlines, which can’t be extended when the work is time-sensitive: The news cycle will not stop for our maladies; the world keeps spinning, even when one is in a hospital. On the other hand, nearly all graduate-school deadlines can be extended if circumstances warrant it. Sometimes I joke that I should just do a fully funded MFA in every genre till I die (like every joke, there’s a bit of truth to it).
As the Ford government begins chipping away at our public-health-care system, it is yet another reason why it is tempting to hide out in the ivory tower – despite the harm it can inflict, or at least trigger – for as long as I can.
Next week, fall term begins for many students. It feels strange after these past three years of graduate school, and considering how much of my life has been spent as a student, to not be joining them in class. Despite my experiences, however, I am considering applying to PhD programs for next year. I wish I could say the prospect of doing a PhD really excites me, rather than seeming like the safest choice, given the options currently available to me. In this society, maybe especially for those of us with chronic illness, it’s hard to know what we really want to do to be happy, when we have to worry so much about what we need to do to be well.