Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Moment I Got My MFA

I hadn’t expected to care that much about earning my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing degree. Sure, I felt pride for the two years I dedicated myself to the work. But, I didn’t think the three letters “MFA” on my résumé, the validation that I finished what I had started, or the brief ceremony at which I would wear the goofy “hood” would matter to me.

When the thirteen of us went backstage at Freeport High School on the night of Saturday, January 13, to dress in our academic regalia, my heart rate began rising. It wasn’t even related to the Eagles taking the lead over the Falcons. In fact, for probably the first time in my life, an NFL Playoff game was being played and it didn’t enter my awareness. I looked around the spacious and brightly lit room at my friends to whom I’d become so close. Some were dressing while others were already dressed and snapping selfies. All were smiling. That’s the thing about occasions that are bittersweet: the joy is overpowering until the end when the pain takes over.

I had been wrong about this ceremony not mattering to me.

Benjamin Rubenstein backstage before ceremony to receive Master of Fine Arts in creative writing
Jan. 13 at the Freeport Performing Arts Center at Freeport High School. Photo by Nikki Sambitsky.
Minutes later, we lined in alphabetical order. I had the honor of squeezing between Irish and Rollerbitch, whose husband was in the crowd on the other side of the curtain we were facing. “He put up with so much over the last two years,” Rollerbitch said.

She and I hugged. I would have said his time caring for their two young kids and four dogs while Rollerbitch isolated herself to write was over, but I hoped not. We were writers, which meant we would have to keep writing.

The line moved. “Walk slowly,” YouSeriouslyCan’tFormatThisThesis?, the administrator of our Stonecoast MFA program, said. “So you can take it all in.”

We walked out of the room we dressed in and right up to the purple curtain. We were standing on the wooden stage. The lighting was dark, so I focused my awareness. When Irish was next to walk to her seat, I thought about how fast the last two years flew. My first writing workshop in January 2016, when I was so overwhelmed, felt like it took place earlier that morning. Some teachers of writing say that every story is about either sex or death, and I realized this story was about death. I had just turned 34, and two of those years flowed together like one Alex Cross book into the next. All of a sudden, one-seventeenth of my life became two singular and connected moments with infinite related and unrelated moments in between.

Irish looked back at me and smiled. Then, she started walking, and I moved a few steps forward.

I imagined if I was 80 like my talented friend who had just taken her seat, time still wouldn’t matter. The moment was all that mattered, which meant the length of our lives didn’t matter because life itself was just one moment in time and not the accumulation of 16 or 34 or 80 years.

Sex or death.

My turn was next. I started walking, slowly, and took my seat next to Irish.

We heard speeches from some classmates; our dean; Justin Tussing, the director of our program; and Jim Kelly, our Hugo Award-winning teacher, who said that a good teacher hopes for his students to surpass him or her. Then, David Anthony Durham, another teacher who writes science fiction, took the stage. The students returned backstage and lined up again in alphabetical order before our final walk as non-masters.

David has a tradition at graduations of reading each student’s name and some lines from that student’s thesis. First up was our friend, CameInLikeAWreckingBall, who led us across the stage to receive our diplomas (or, really, a paper that basically says, “Your diploma is coming in the mail in six to eight months!”). This happened eight more times before David called Irish's name and read a line from her speculative fiction story about using human blood for ink.

I stepped forward once again. David said, “Benjamin Rubenstein.” I walked up three steps to the stage. Then, David read lines from the first chapter of the novel which I’m halfway through writing: “They believed in me. ‘You’re the man,’ Josh said. ‘Now go be the man and get us two packs of Black & Milds Original flavor.’”

My feet moved me towards the other side of the stage towards my sort-of diploma. Walk slowly, I thought, followed by, Don’t trip. My former teachers and classmates who will graduate over the coming two years cheered from their seats in the audience. Also from somewhere in the audience, a dog barked (long story). And, I took a mental snapshot of the feeling because I never wanted to forget that moment. It was was g-damn awesome.

Rollerbitch walked next, NotTheGreatestThesisFormatter walked after her, and then the dean spoke. “On behalf of the board of trustees and in accordance with the authority vested in me, I hereby proudly confer on each of you...your Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and all its honors, distinctions and privileges.”

Then, like a roller coaster that happened to last for two years, the moment was over.
That night, we drank tequila and celebrated, and the following day we trickled out of the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine, one at a time. CameInLikeAWreckingBall was the first to leave so he could care for his flu-stricken son back home in Portland. He wrote on our closed-group Facebook page, “This experience has been as formative and special as any in my life.”

I thought about his words on my way home to Arlington, Virginia, and all last week. What he said was true for me, too, but why?

Now, I understand. The joy of our experience at Stonecoast extends so far beyond the work, the three letters “MFA,” and any one particular moment. Stonecoast fostered a tight-knit community where we “get” each other in ways that people outside the community may not. In that regard, the Stonecoast community is similar to the young adult cancer community, which is remarkable since our journey to becoming writers is not a matter of life and death…just don’t tell Irish I said that because I like my blood.

So, here’s to my residency group at Stonecoast. We call ourselves Milk Pants Stonecoast Firsties, and soon enough you’ll know who some of us are.
Milk Pants Stonecoast Firsties
Milk Pants Stonecoast Firsties before graduating with our Master of Fine Arts in creative writing degrees. Missing from photo: Graveserenader, the already-famous member of our group.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

Ben's Obligatory 'Thanks and Bye' Email

Every interaction and potential interaction is an opportunity to provide value to others.

When I really consider that statement, I get fired up. I think, You mean I can improve the moment for the next person I see in the elevator, walking down the street, or sifting through the different varieties of hummus, each one grosser-looking than the previous?!

That statement applies to written interactions, too. I seized the opportunity last week on my last day in my previous job as a writer and editor at my federal agency. It is common courtesy for departing employees to send a "thanks and bye" email. I wanted to be courteous. But, I also wanted to make the email valuable.

Here's the "thanks and bye" email I sent to my coworkers, with some redactions. Remember: the outcome of the interaction isn't what matters because not every interaction will be a winner. All that matters is you give it your all to improve the moment for others, even if that means Outlook adds cricket emojis just because of you.

Dear Office of Communications,

Today is my last day with you. I’ve been here for just over five years, which is the longest amount of time I have held and expect to hold a single job. I think that’s a sign that I either really enjoyed editing tweets or couldn’t live without hearing Softball’s laugh from the next cube over. The good news is I’ll still hear his laugh from down the hall in the Management Directorate.

I will miss the work—there is something so satisfying to me about redlining almost every word of a horrifically written document. Especially when I get to redline hashtags.

Even more than that, I cherish the time I spent working with many of you. Like: years ago, our servers froze because of a barrage of “reply alls” sent to thousands of employees. G-Unit, seated two cubes away (and with an unfortunate bystander-employee between us), and I couldn’t stop howling after each. That was such fun (even if the server-freeze prevented us from actually working)! I can’t believe I haven’t written an Our Stories about the employees who wrote the most comedic of those “reply alls.”

Or: the time Zombie, Deadpan and I tried the BeanBoozled pack of jelly beans, which Zombie gifted to me for Hanukkah—though, I’m not sure “gift” is accurate in this case. We were pretty sure there were real bits of vomit in one of the jelly beans.

I’m certain I’ll never forget my interview with CatCat and former-office mate, Walkabout. During the interview, I was sure Walkabout would be my future boss if they selected me (CatCat was my boss for almost my entire five years here). I prepared for the interview as if they knew nothing about me (they knew far too much courtesy of Google). And, I nearly panicked about their Star Wars vs. Star Trek question. I thought, What if I answer incorrectly and don’t get selected and am stuck as a lowly consultant and don’t get to edit tweets and don’t get to cut out bad hashtags nooooooooo!

All was well, and now I get to give WayBetterWriterThanMe the gift of editing hashtags.

Thank you for an enjoyable five years.



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Friday, December 22, 2017

Words by ruBENstein Quarterly Newsletter

I published the first edition of my new quarterly newsletter yesterday! In Words by ruBENstein (which you can subscribe to here), every three months I'll share: one or two of my recent stories plus an oldie but goodie; my most popular social media post; and one story and life lesson from one of writing's greats.

I am excited about this, and I hope my newsletter gives you a bit of entertainment and inspiration. I say a bit because Words by ruBENstein is short and conveniently allows you to skip the segments you don't care for and read those you do. That is intentional. If I do one thing well in life it is choosing my incomings and muting the rest. So if you focus your attention in similar ways to how I focus mine, then maybe you miss my stories when they originally publish. Maybe your go-to social media site just happens to not show my posts on your feed, or you happen not to look at the precise time.

No problem. Words by ruBENstein provides only my best stories and posts and great stuff from one writer who has inspired me from the last three months. And three months from now, you'll get another newsletter with these same features. I won't spam you, ask for you to purchase anything, or request money.

I will only ask you to give me a belated Hanukkah gift now and subscribe to my newsletter (and check your spam/promotions folders for both the confirmation email and newsletter itself). I'd be honored.

Join my Words by ruBENstein quarterly newsletter.

Thank you!

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Meet Ben: Jewish “Cancer-Slayer” of the Week

The platform for Jews in their twenties and thirties, Gather DC, posted a lovely write-up on me for its "Jew of the Week" series. I figured I'd blog about it now before Gather downgrades me to Jew of the Day or Jew of the Hour.

As Published on Gather DC, by Allison Friedman
Ben Rubenstein is one of the most fascinating Arlingtonians (that’s a word, right?) I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting in my time in the DMV. To elaborate on that bold statement – he’s a published memoir author, decade-long blogger, beer travelog-er, enthusiast of living life in the present moment, and tattoo aficionado. Plus, he hates hummus. Which is just super interesting in itself. Read on to get to know this really amazing human.

Benjamin Rubenstein at the Ring of Kerry in Ireland while in residency at Stonecoast
Me at the Ring of Kerry in Ireland in July 2017

I'll be at the Bel Air Woman’s Club's Meet the Author Night on Dec. 4 from 6:30-8 p.m. at Chinn Park Regional Library in Woodbridge, Virginia. Email Belairwomansclub at gmail.com for more information.

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