Graduate Division: Grad Journal
A Day in the Life: Jose Nateras, MFAW
It is Wednesday morning and it is very early. 3:45 a.m. to be exact. On the shelf next to my bed, the alarm on my phone is going off. I am not a morning person. I went to bed relatively late. But, still, I have to wake up. In order to make this a reality, said alarm cannot be dismissed until I am able to answer a number of simple math questions (a useful feature of the alarm app I downloaded after running late too many mornings). I hate math.
Upon adding and subtracting my way through a couple rounds of hitting “snooze”, I stumble my way through washing up and climb into an Uber. It’s still dark. The sun won’t rise for another couple of hours.
I work at the customer service desk of a gym, which opens at five in the morning. I have to be there at 4:45. All in all, early morning hours notwithstanding, it’s a good gig. I get a free gym membership, the schedule is flexible, and aside from checking people in and occasionally unlocking stuck lockers, the majority of my time is spent at a computer. It is at this computer that I get approximately 80% of my writing done. Sure, the pay could be better, but as a grad student in the MFA Writing program here at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), the forced discipline of spending a few hours writing in the morning is a useful perk.
Over the course of my four hour shift, I can get a fair bit of writing done: a chapter of the novel I’m working on. A scene for the play I’m developing. A series of shots for the screenplay I’ve been writing. An article for one of the publications I freelance for.
There is a 7-Eleven across the street, where I grab coffee and food. At this point in my life, 80% percent of the food I eat is either from 7-Eleven or Dunkin Donuts. This is both as bad as it sounds and probably not as awful as you might expect.
When my shift ends at 9:00 a.m., I work out for a couple of hours. Exercising once or twice a week is the least I can do to make myself feel marginally less disgusting given my dietary tendencies. The gym also has a sauna and a nice steam room that helps me to stave off the stresses and panic of student loan debt, scheduling, assignments, relationships, and all the other life-stuff of a single, queer, twenty-eight-year-old person of color, living in Chicago.
It’s time to head to school. I have a 12:00 p.m. meeting with one of my Graduate Projects Advisors. I’m enrolled in the standard 15 credits and, per the program’s requirements, I have two advisors I meet with on alternating weeks to help me develop my work and my thesis. We meet for an hour talking about the play I’ve been writing, as well as classes for next semester and other projects I’m working on outside of school.
Following our meeting, I take the elevator up from the Writing Department on the 8th floor of the Lakeview building, to the 14th floor, then walk over to the MacLean building. I have class from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. and am running a little late. I’ll also have to leave class today a little early, around 3:45, because I recently started working at a nearby restaurant again after taking a leave of absence.
So, I bounce out of class early and head over to the restaurant. It’s nice to see some familiar faces and it’s also interesting to see how things have changed. The restaurant is beautiful and located in a fancy hotel that was once a private men’s club. Built in 1893 for the World’s Fair, this hotel also happens to be the setting of the novel I’m writing.
After my 4:00–6:00 p.m. shift at the restaurant is over, I head for the train. No, not to go home. I have rehearsal. Aside from being a full-time grad student, I also happen to have a full-time career as a professional actor. In undergrad, I had dual majors in theater and film. I booked my first professional show the summer after my freshman year and have been lucky enough to continue getting paid to do what I love ever since. I signed with my agent upon graduating with my bachelor’s degrees and spent the next five years building up a resume of plays, television gigs, and the occasional commercial.
When I found out I got accepted into grad school, I told myself that my biggest goal was to not lose the hard-earned career momentum I’d built up as an actor. For me, acting and writing are like my left and right hands: it has never been a one or the other sort of thing, never two separate pursuits I could choose between.
While most acting careers tend to be rather inconsistent I have been very lucky in that, over the course of the past year or so, I’ve been able to move from project to project without significant gaps in between. It’s a nice bit of stability I’m thankful to have enjoyed. At the same time, balancing a full-time acting career with being a full-time grad student has been exhausting.
As I ride the blue line to the rehearsal space, I call my mom. We talk almost every day, usually while I’m in transit. It’s a nice routine that allows me to make the most out of my time on the CTA.
After the four hour rehearsal, I make it back to my apartment at around 11:30 p.m. and decompress with some TV as I look over my schedules and calendars in preparation for tomorrow. Usually I’m in bed, asleep, by 1:00 a.m. or so. Sometimes later, sometimes earlier.
And that is the day.
No, this is not what every single day looks like. This semester, however, this is basically what every Wednesday has looked like. While many days are marginally less busy and there is the rare occasion of a day wherein I have no prior commitments, the rest of my week looks more similar to this than not. In fact, when I think about my experience as a grad student, this sort of day is representative of my workload.
Upon reflection, I am left with a question: How is it possible to work so much, to have so many jobs, and still have absolutely no money? I have a mountain of student loan debt from undergrad. A fresh mountain of student loan debt blooming from grad school. No credit card. No car. No mortgage. I live a rather fiscally restrained life… and yet, I have no money. My parents help as they can, but they’re working class folks on the verge of retirement. I try my damnedest not to have to lean on them financially, knowing they can only do so much. Then I look at the recent Republican tax bills that will force grad students to report financial aid, stipends, and tuition waivers as income; increasing the amount of taxes those grad students have to pay, and I am horrified. These bills also would keep students from getting to deduct interest payments for their existing student loans. The tax bill would also make it so that self-employed people, such as writers and actors, can no longer deduct business expenses for their income. I look at the world and more than anything, more than my schedule, my lack of sleep, my workload; it is the idea that the people making decisions, decisions which will affect the lives of so many, don’t care about the welfare of those lives… that is what is truly exhausting.
As Jose continues his studies here at SAIC, he is also continuing to act in a number of projects. As a writer, he is a contributor for The A.V. Club, F Newsmagazine, and has a couple of plays and a novel in development.