I want a bookstore.
Everyone will tell you that this is a bad idea. Pragmatists say you can’t compete with Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s online store for prices. Pessimists say nobody is buying physical books anyway. Bookstores don’t survive in small towns; you’ll lose a lot of money in a futile endeavor; you’ll never find a way to make it and if you do, you’ll burn out. My friend Robyn owned an independent book store for years in upstate New York and she specifically advised against it when asked. She said that books become things, and you’re selling things. In time, it becomes no different from selling dresses. In short, opening a bookstore is a terrible idea, and I know this.
But, oh the vision I have of this niche little scifi book shop. I want it. I want a bookstore.
I recently received my first PhD rejection letter. It came from my top choice program, where I knew a guy who knew a guy and everything. But I wasn’t even surprised.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted a PhD, but halfway through my MFA when the time came to start applying, I couldn’t decide what type of program or where to apply. At first, back when I still hadn’t even thought about which MFA programs to look into, I figured I would go from the MFA into an English PhD, because that made sense. I built my own minor in women’s studies in my undergraduate, and for a while I wanted to do some kind of gender studies program. Then I looked into joint programs in English and gender studies. The idea really excited me, and I think for two years, that’s what I said I wanted to do. But then one day, I didn’t.
I ended up applying to programs in Portuguese and Brazilian studies instead.
After the 2014 DISQUIET, I started to do some thinking about where I really want to take my writing and the kinds of stories and books I have on my heart, and suddenly the idea of another English degree or even gender studies didn’t seem all that relevant. I wanted (and still want) to write about Portugal, even in my fiction that has nothing to do with Portugal. I wanted to be grappling with the diaspora identity in every turn I took. I still wanted a PhD, but what I wanted to study was already shifting. So when I sat down with a Portuguese-American friend of mine at the end of my MFA career and said I still hadn’t applied to PhD programs because I couldn’t decide well enough what I wanted, he suggested I look into programs in Portuguese studies. The more I looked, the more I fell in love with the idea. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.
This, I think, will pan out to have been a bad idea. I have quite a lot going against me, including but not limited to: having taken no courses in Portuguese history or literature ever, having never written an academic research paper on topics relating to Portugal, only slightly above average GRE scores, a tendency to begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions for the purpose of effect within my creative writing and occasionally forgetting that this is a no-no, an otaku obsession with anime that has no relevance to Luso things*, and the downright fact that I have absolutely no interest in becoming a part of academia as a professor or researcher in the long run.
So why the hell do I want this PhD if I don’t want to go into academia? I guess part of it is vanity; my selfish hearts want the accolades that come with having a doctorate. You worked all of those long years and wrote that dissertation AND defended it and came out alive? Why, yes, yes I did. Bow to me and my superior intelligence. I am, and have always been, a Ravenclaw. There’s also the fact that my mother never got the chance to finish her doctorate, largely because she got pregnant with my sister when she was ABD — and for some reason this has always pushed me toward reaching that level, achieving what was denied the previous generation, finishing what she started (in an emotional sense, since her degree was in engineering and no way could I pick that up where she left off).
But those are the vanities, the reasons that gave me the idea of higher education in the first place. They could be applied to any program, any school. But despite all of the odds against me, why did I decide to invest the application fees and transcript requests in Portuguese studies programs? There are two real, solid reasons: First, because I need the information for my writing and the best way to learn it would be in a structured program. During the summer of 2014, I basically promised each of my dad’s sisters that I would write a book about the family, which would necessarily also be a book about Portugal under Salazar. I only know what has been told to me by relatives and what I’ve read on the internet. Certainly, it’s possible for me to do this research on my own, but the task is so daunting, so unforgiving when you’re not even sure where to begin. Second, because I love to challenge myself in my learning. Nothing could be more challenging than going into a PhD program with basically no background in the material. Damn straight that’s what I’d decide to do.
Again, everything I want is, in fact, a bad idea.
I truly thought my passion for Portugal, my love of learning and the support of the Portuguese-American writing community would be enough to bump me up. After all, I have great recommenders and an excellent track record with independent thinking and critical analysis and hard work (again, I built my own minor in undergrad). And technically I’m still waiting to hear back from the rest of the programs, so there’s still more hope than none.
But the truth is, very shortly after I submitted my first four applications (there was a fifth started, but ultimately never completed), I got a very strong gut feeling that I wasn’t getting in anywhere and that this might not be the right direction for me after all. Call it buyer’s remorse, if you will. Between the GREs and the application fees and the transcript requests, I sank about $600 into the PhD application process — a large chunk of which was funded by my mother, to be honest — but I didn’t and don’t have any guarantee that my applications will even be truly considered. As I fiddled away with that last application, whose fee was $70 and whose program wasn’t fully-funded, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of not right. One day I realized that, even if I got into this last program, I couldn’t afford to go to a school without full funding and I just don’t have the intellectual bravado to sell myself to outside funders every semester or year just to keep above water. I decided not to finish the application, and I haven’t regretted the decision.
For the past couple of months, whenever people have asked me about what I’m doing in my life or what I want to be doing, I’ve said basically the same thing. I’m waiting to hear back from PhD programs, and once I do, I’ll know from there. Which is definitely true. If I get into one of the three remaining programs, you can bet that I’ll be in New England come August. In a sense, waiting for feedback has allowed me to exist in a kind of limbo zone. Until I get the news, my future is out of my control. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t kind of a relief. People stop asking you questions once you say you’re waiting to hear back from programs, and once the applications are in, there’s nothing more you can do. If you can let go of the anxious worrying, then you’re golden. There is nothing you can do.
Getting that first rejection letter filled me with an odd array of emotions. I wasn’t angry or distraught; I haven’t cried. I honestly wasn’t even very upset, and this was my top choice school, the school whose program outline on their website convinced me that I wanted to go for Portuguese studies instead of something more realistic. How I felt in that moment, how I still feel, reminds me of something my mom said when we heard that a friend of mine had passed away. She said, paraphrasing, that she felt like she finally found out what happened to him, as if he had died a long time ago and we were only just now hearing about it. This sense made her feel awful because that friend had truly just died, but I feel like my chances in Portuguese studies might have started dying as soon as I hit the final submit and I’m only just now — finally — hearing about it.
Don’t get me wrong; I want a PhD, but I also feel like this is probably a bad idea. Maybe even worse than opening a bookstore.