| Don’t Write Alone
Writing Life My Heart Is a Bibliography: On Being a Writer Without a University Degree
A part of me fears that my writing community will take me less seriously if they find out my highest academic honor is a high school diploma.
A few years ago, my partner Wes gave me a McGill University T-shirt they no longer wear. It’s gray with a crewneck and a faded red-and-white insignia. I didn’t think anything of it the first time I wore it outside, but eventually people started to ask me what program I was in and I’d have to tell them the truth: I don’t have a university degree. Wearing the T-shirt started to feel as fraudulent as wearing a rented cap and gown would be—I didn’t belong in either.
I’ve been to McGill, but not to study. On my way to a class to speak about my first novel, I walked its halls slowly, trying to feel the history, the accretion of knowledge, the anxiety of forty thousand students doing midterms—but I felt nothing. When I talked about my book, I could tell that the students, who were deep in their own studies, were wondering how to relate their experience to mine: Where did I go to school? What did I study? How did I get from there to authorship? I worried that the first chance they got, they would needle me on my academic path and, in so doing, unravel me completely. Was I even qualified to speak here? I didn’t tell them about my lack of credentials because I didn’t want them to judge me; as for the ones who wouldn’t judge me, I didn’t want them to follow my example; as for the ones who might follow my example, I didn’t want to discourage them from forging their own paths in the world.
My impostor syndrome goes deep. A part of me fears that my writing community will take me less seriously if they find out my highest academic honor is a high school diploma. I fear that the writers I mentor will know more about writing theory than I do. To cope, I fake it. I keep question period to a minimum and avoid all discussion about my own education, even though it doesn’t feel good. I change the subject even when students don’t ask. And I don’t dare wear a university T-shirt to class.
I was deliberately nudged away from school because I grew up a Jehovah’s Witness, part of a group that tells followers pursuing “worldly” knowledge will take them off the road to Paradise. From a recent video on JW.org: “All too often, our young people have met with spiritual disaster, especially after leaving home and living on a university campus.” In their view, college is a place where students plagiarize, binge drink, fuck, and lose all morals while trading God for philosophy and a good GPA.
Just in case any member is foolish enough to toy with the idea of letting Satan fill their mind at a university, the group has a backup argument: Why bother getting a degree if the world is about to end? Witnesses believe that Armageddon—when Jehovah will destroy the wicked—is perpetually just around the corner . You might as well spend the remaining time preaching your heart out. Bible study is the only necessary training, they say. Become a scholar in the Gospel, and it will save you. A 1969 issue of Awake! says, “As a young person, you will never fulfill a career that this system offers. If you are in high school and thinking about a college education, it means at least four, perhaps even six or eight more years to graduate into a specialized career. But where will this system of things be by that time? It will be well on the way toward its finish, if not actually gone!” Six years later, the Witnesses’ prophecy of the world ending in 1975 failed, and yet another generation of acolytes were robbed of an education. According to Pew Research, only 9 percent of JWs have an undergraduate degree.
This anti-intellectual stance isn’t unique to Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Educated , a memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist and survivalist Mormon family, Tara Westover writes, “An hour later Dad was no longer grinning. Tyler had not repeated his wish to go to college, but he had not promised to stay silent, either. He was just sitting there, behind that vacant expression, riding it out. ‘A man can’t make a living out of books and scraps of paper,’ Dad said. ‘You’re going to be the head of a family. How can you support a wife and children with books ?’”
This patriarchal and heteronormative model is classic JW. But until reading this passage, I had forgotten that the faith my mother and I shared hadn’t been the only threat to me taking up a life of literature and, therefore, school. The problem had also been my stepdad, a functionally illiterate man who disparaged books and reading at every turn—and who wasn’t a Witness. He often pulled me out of a book to help him fix his broken-down jalopies, the Torino whose timing chain whined out of synch, the Cutlass Ciera whose rust holes in the floor gave us an unwanted view of Quebec snow. He’d ask me to pass him Vise-Grips, and when I’d fetch needle-nose pliers by mistake, he’d look at me with disgust and fling them across the garage. God damn it! I said Vise-Grips. If it’s not written in a book, you have no idea what to do. All that reading and you’re useless around a car. For years, I handed him the wrong thing and he chewed me out. The cars never got fixed, and my shame grew into something bigger than a garage could contain. To this day, I won’t say anything if someone mistakes a Phillips-head for a flat-head.
Given that I had a book-shaming stepfather and a mom in an anti-education cult, it’s either a miracle I turned out to be a writer, or a foregone conclusion.
I started to hide my reading from my stepdad, but he still constantly complained to my mother about this supposed deficit in my real-world experience, this failure of masculinity. It would be years before I understood that his rage was because of his own upbringing and illiteracy, that I had access to a world he didn’t. If my stepdad had been able to read auto-repair manuals, I might’ve been his punching bag less often. This is still no excuse for how he treated me. These were his failures, not mine. Again, it’s a scene right out of Educated : “When Dad saw me with one of those books, he’d try to get me away from them. Perhaps he was remembering Tyler. Perhaps he thought if he could just distract me for a few years, the danger would pass. So he made up jobs for me to do, whether they needed doing or not.” I felt the shock of recognition my first time reading this. Had my stepdad actually needed me to pass him tools that were a foot away from him? Had he really needed me to walk to Canadian Tire in the snow for two hours, my toes freezing in thin rubber boots as I trudged along the highway shoulder to inevitably get him the wrong radiator hose?
Given that I had both an illiterate, book-shaming stepfather and a mom wrapped up in an anti-education cult, it’s either a miracle I turned out to be a writer, or it’s a foregone conclusion. I can’t tell which teleology I like better. In one narrative, I buck the odds and intervene in my own fate; in the other, I’m hewn of obstacles, of the very matter in my way. And which of the JW arguments did I fall for: that school is a moral cesspool, or that there’s no point because of the short time left? The answer to that might be complicated, and probably depends on how hungry I was for the moral cesspools I was supposed to avoid, and how firmly I believed the end was near.
If I see my lack of education as primarily the fault of others, I risk losing more agency to a cult bent on taking it all and to an abusive stepdad. If I absorb the blame, I give a pass to people who need to be held accountable. Perhaps binary thinking is the problem. In and out are not absolutes. Ultimately, it’s not okay for bad things to happen, no matter the result. Maybe the point is that I found role models other than my parents to aspire to.
One of my many jobs after leaving high school was at the family moving company, where I worked for a few years alongside current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses. Because JWs are pressured to limit their schooling to community college and vocational training, many rely on trades to pay the bills. Trades are okay because they focus on physical things; the intangible is the domain of the Almighty. Sure, people let us into their homes because we were movers, but they trusted us specifically because Witnesses are known for their honesty, and we were proud of that. I pushed dollies, mastered the straps, and learned how to rip tape with my fingertips. We moved pianos down icy stairs and up slippery ramps. We schlepped crystal cabinets across time zones and arranged set pieces for lives we would never live. We moved furniture as if it mattered, as if it wouldn’t be destroyed at Armageddon along with the unbelievers who owned it. It was tempting to preach to them—a moving van can be a perfect Trojan horse—but we usually held back. I continued working as a mover even after I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses; my mind was no longer of service to the group, but I could still go from house to house.
As any mover knows, books are the heaviest, so customers often left them for us to pack. As it turned out, I was good at boxing them and often found myself on book duty. Electricity shivered through me as I plucked books off shelves and wrapped them in newsprint. I categorized entire worlds of knowledge closed to a JW, the kind of texts I was supposed to read at university. On one job, I was ushered through a false wall panel into a secret library of Masonic tomes, spines bearing the telltale Square and Compasses, the All-Seeing Eye. Like the JWs, the Freemasons produced their own literature, but they permitted a wider reading latitude than we did. I stole hours off the clock to read, before sealing the boxes and emerging through the hidden door for pizza and sunlight. I still wonder why that family felt the need to hide their books.
My curiosity about school got the better of me. Three years after I left my faith and became an apostate, I applied as a mature student to the Fine Arts program at Concordia University and got in. The admissions panel was intrigued by my shabby portfolio; I showed them blurry black-and-white photos in a three-ring binder and a childish painting I’d done on a shoebox. Perhaps they saw past my lack of artistic practice and recognized my desire to learn, my thirst for knowledge, my largely unused creative capacities that needed a place to flourish. My many privileges—white, cis, able, English-speaking, male, citizen—helped. I circled the classes in the program booklet, not fully realizing what I was getting myself into.
At first, things went well. I developed a deeper grasp of the world outside a biblical eschatology. I was excited by this new opening for a while, until I slid into apathy. I mangled Barthes and Sontag quotes and turned in barely legible essays, if I turned them in at all. I was more interested in getting high on darkroom chemicals than in completing my photography assignments. And yes, I was getting high on other substances, too, though I’m not positive that the Watchtower had been right about the corrupting nature of college. My fellow students all seemed to take their studies seriously; if anything, I was a bad influence on them. I became the bane of my interdisciplinary arts professor when I brought a fan club of friends to her tiny class of ten students. I sat on tables and snapped bubble gum, ignoring the dirty looks. The professor soon asked me to leave and not come back. She didn’t think I had what it took to succeed as a student, which made me defiant, eager to prove that a degree isn’t the only valid life path. At the time, I didn’t see the irony in the vaguely anti-intellectual stance I had taken.
I stopped going to all my classes. I never even formally dropped out, so I’m one of those rare people with a 0.00 GPA. I lasted only three months at Concordia, partly because I wanted to abdicate responsibility for a while in exchange for an adolescence that religion had stolen from me, but also because I wanted to go out and grab the post-education life that school had taught me to envision. I still felt doubt, however, over blowing my second chance, when so many people who don’t have my privileges never get a chance to begin with.
Soon after I dropped out, I found myself at the amusement park in Coney Island. The rides were haunted in their abandon and decay, and the screech of the Cyclone roller coaster implied danger, that everything was slightly off the rails. I spent the afternoons eating clams on the half shell and playing Whac-A-Mole, bashing, as it were, my past selves with all my might. You could shoot paint pellets at a clown who taunted you from a pit. Come on, asshole, afraid you’ll miss? He wore makeshift armor and ducked behind tin drums. You won by making a direct hit, but there was no prize other than the satisfaction of seeing the paint splatter. You projected the face of your worst enemy onto the clown, aimed, and hoped for the best.
Around that time, I discovered Mark Dery’s 1999 book The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink . Dery explores millennial angst by writing around the edges of the human condition, our death drive, our obsession with the gruesome. I fell from the precipice of every page. Reading it, I felt like I did when I packed books as a mover, delving deep into the “worldly” wisdom I knew I needed. It’s amazing that it took me—a kid who grew up in a cult in which the end is always nigh—a trip to the dollar stacks at the Strand Bookstore to discover the true meaning of doomsday. In one chapter, Dery writes about how “evil clowns” propose an imperviousness that is “perfectly adapted to life in a hall of media mirrors where reality and its fun house double are increasingly indistinguishable.” In other words, a clown’s forced greasepaint smile might be the ideal response to attacks on reality, and to the information and sensory overload that Dery calls “info-vertigo.”
It dawned on me that I was this clown. This smile was one I’d practiced and mastered when I was a preacher. Later, when partaking of the “info-vertigo” I needed to free myself, I kept this smile as protective armor, because attacks on reality came from all sides and weren’t confined to the machinations of a high-control group. The book is even more relevant today than it was then—in a way, we are all this clown, pacing the Coney Island boardwalk endlessly, doing our best to survive distortions of the truth. Why on earth would we shoot ?
I could feel parts of the Jehovah’s Witness in me die as I loitered in the park and flung bottle caps at Astro Tower. The new millennium was coming, yet I felt no angst, which is strange, because it seemed entirely plausible for the city to blink off and not turn on again when the Y2K bug struck, as some newscasters were forecasting. Maybe I wasn’t afraid of the end of the world because I had already found it: here at the last stop on the D train, wedged impossibly between Brooklyn and the ocean.
I cringe at the words self-taught and autodidact for their arrogance, for how solitary they make the process of learning sound, which is the opposite of my experience. If growing up a JW had created a vacuum in my mind, I later filled the vacuum with books, which ended up filling it with people. I met archetypes that were new to me, both on the page and in real life. I wrote to authors whose achievements occurred both inside and outside of academia; many of them became my mentors, then my friends. I’ve done writing residencies where cooking for other writers was inextricable from the work we produced, where our relationships were the works in progress.
Paradise, unlike what I was taught growing up, is a classroom of my own making.
I haven’t needed school to know what to read. My partner Mark and I have taken up residence in the great used bookstores of the world, where we hunt rare first editions, waiting patiently for them to show their deckled edges. I get book recommendations from a multitude of sources and assign myself homework every day. When my friend Ricky gave me a copy of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel Too Loud a Solitude, I recognized myself in the narrator, a paper crusher who rescues books but is killed in his sleep when the sagging shelves over his bed give way. That’s probably how I’m going to go too. I suspect that the solitude of the title is overstated; when you think about it, did he really die alone?
While I cherish alternate forms of learning and all they make possible, I’m starting to make space for the idea of school. When someone tells me that I don’t need a degree, they’re totally right: I’ve managed to get published without one, so I’m living proof that school isn’t the only path to building a writing career. When applying for opportunities, my writing experience is often accepted as an equivalent. Still, when I hear that message, my brain computes that I shouldn’t try to reach higher, self-improve, or grow in ways I think might be good for me. A part of me hears echoes of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about applying to university. I might be ready to structure parts of my learning within an academic framework. I beamed with pride the day Mark defended his master’s thesis and the day Wes earned a bachelor’s with honors; Wes graduates with a master’s next year, which I know will also give me visions of my future self. My partners show me the way. In my second novel, I wrote about students who rebel against the academic establishment while nailing their grades, and I’ve been jealous of their compromise ever since.
Getting a degree—perhaps in creative writing—would also allow me to apply for teaching jobs that are now closed to me. I don’t believe degree programs are the final word in determining qualifications, but their value in helping me become a better teacher is obvious. It’s possible my blank spots would be better served by a series of elective courses that cover a broader range of subjects. Either way, there are aspects of my intellectual life I know can only come alive in the embrace of a cohort, a system of accountability beyond me. Yes, I’m being idealistic, and yes, I’m prepared to be disappointed, but the chance to fail at something has no price—especially for people who were taught not to strive for anything this world could offer and who therefore could not fail.
If impostor syndrome is a lifelong fight, I’m going to need the extra support. The timing is right. When I was younger and certain of everything, I absorbed very little. Now that I’m certain of nothing, I finally have the chance to shift the foundations of what I know.
I’m grateful that the people in my life are fully behind my eventual return to school. When I recently texted a friend about wanting to matriculate, he did me one better: “I could picture you as a professor.” When I try to envision what that would look like, I see myself almost exactly as I am now, with a dozen books on the go, held in perfect tensegrity through a complex system of Post-it Notes. My heart is a bibliography. I belong wherever books take flight. Paradise, unlike what I was taught growing up, is a classroom of my own making, a place where I can be both professor and student. In Paradise, I will not be afraid of question period. I will wear any T-shirt I want.