A number of my friends are now preparing themselves for their qualifying exams, a gauntlet that I ran through last Fall. The days that await them remind me of my own such experiences. In retrospect, it was great for me. I also cannot imagine a time in which I was more stressed out.
Part of the stress was the simple fact that I had to work 30-hours a week to support myself, while also spending the rest of that week trying to cram knowledge into my brain for the fateful 12-hour endurance test that is qualifying exams. I do not recommend having a job of any sort while studying for exams. Live in a box on the street instead. It will be less horrible.
Exams are difficult because they are so amorphous. It is hard to predict what they will be like, hard to anticipate exactly what will satisfy your board of professors. Every board is different. Everyone’s experience of exams is different. Most students freak out at some point or another, whether or not they admit it. One of my best friends, Jeremy, was basically reduced to a mechanical existence of books and facts: if you said anything to him, including “hello,” and he’d begin talking about Hauerwas and Lonergan and so forth. He was barely human.
Another friend of mine turned white-faced and inconsolable, features paler and paler as the ominous exams approached. It was as if he saw the face of Death. Or another colleague, describing what it was like for him, said simply, “I read books like my hair was on fire.”
Me, I was capable of appearing relatively calm on the surface while on the inside I had developed a sort of fatalistic madness. I was convinced that all happiness had dissolved from the earth, and that all I would ever do for the rest of my life was work all day and all night to barely survive. My friend, Jeremy, having already emerged the gauntlet, did what he could to remind me that life is not always so grim.
The day just before my exams, I had to give a paper for Lonergan on the Edge. By this point in time, I was insensible to all human emotion. You could have lit Jeremy on fire and I would not have reacted. Although if you try that now, I will get you. I like Jeremy; he is my friend.
But hey, being insensitive to human emotion is in fact excellent for passing exams with flying colors. I say this because that’s how it turned out for me. I was incapable of feeling pain, and I was freaking amazing.
(Have you figured out yet that I love hyperbole?)
Anyway, I was very early aware of the way I was disintegrating under the pressure. So I made the conscious decision to do something about it. I wrote a ridiculous “science fiction” (loosely-termed) story that featured a lot of my Marquette colleagues as the characters. It is possibly the most dramatic and least inventive story in the history of the universe. And it helped to preserve my sanity.
One of the many reasons that I refuse to write fiction is because I have a long and tortured history with fiction-writing. I used to write little stories. I used to – you see, these stories almost destroyed me. I became too lost in them, too hopelessly far away from real life. Shaken into an awareness of how far gone I was threatening to become, I gave them up entirely – and forever. I have never again made a serious attempt at fiction.
There is something dangerous about imagination. An imagination is an immense good, which is why an imagination gone wrong can be so terrible to endure.
But while studying for exams, I made a non-serious attempt to return to fiction. Aware of how a story could briefly help me to escape the pressures of work and study, I deliberately lost myself in one. I lost myself in this short story of impossible ridiculousness. The story was much too absurd for the old dangers of imagination to really find me again.
Besides, I had help. My friends, Nathan and Lisa, constructed much of the story and most of the characters. I gave them a basic, outlandish plot: “These guys are in space in the future, but there is something even more evil that wants to DESTROY THE UNIVERSE.” They contributed something like a real plot to take its place. All I basically had to do was construct the scenes and write them down. This made the story better because it never had a chance to succumb to my desire to DESTROY THE UNIVERSE.
And anyway, can you imagine something more hilariously out-of-place than your closest friends occupying a science fiction epic? It was like Star Wars, but with my friends in it.
I abused everyone with new chapters all summer, heedless of whether they cared. It was a great escape, and some of my friends really got into it along with me. We bonded a bit over something completely fictional and ridiculous. Even though I was stressed, it was fun.
I have included the opening prologue to “The Story” on this post, but I have not included the whole story on this post. (I won’t torture you.) Still, I welcome you to experience the absurdity if you so please. Drop me a note. I warn you now that none of it was written with the intent of being good; only with the intent of having some fun. And, I tell you, it is fun. Especially if you know some of the people who populate it.
First, the prologue: “Unknown Threats.”
Second, I was going to include a cast list, but I am not sure if my friends would be humiliated by this. If you want to know who is who, just ask. Until then, I’ll leave my friends out of it.
Good luck, my friends, on your exams! If you need to try anything nuts to stay a little sane, believe me: I understand.