By Nathan Cunningham

I crossed the finish line of my last semester at college like an exhausted racehorse, limping, panting, in last place but glad to make it to the end. I commuted more than sixty miles every day for class. I had a one-year-old at home and my wife was pregnant with our second child. Our only income came from a single summer and some Fridays I spent cutting grass at another university.

I was ready to be done with school and find a new job. My family was ready, too.

So I marched in the procession with my head held high. A pipe band led my fellow graduates and me across the college campus, past cheering lines of berobed professors, and into the packed arena where our friends and families waited and the university orchestra pounded out Pomp and Circumstance. My heart raced with the dizzying perfection of the moment. This was it. I had finished college, and everything looked up from here.

Except I didn’t graduate.

Final grades went up a few days after the celebration. And instead of a diploma, I received a D in playwriting.

That dealt a devastating blow. After countless hours researching and drafting and revising everything from poetry to annotated bibliographies; sleepless nights forcing out coherent sentences with five tabs open on my browser and three books open on my kitchen table; early mornings on cold train platforms and long days away from my family; I came out empty handed.

I let myself down. I let my family down. What were we going to do now?

So I did what I assume all sensible people do when they fail at life. I wallowed in self-pity for a few days. Applied for what few writing jobs might take me. Hooked myself up to an ice cream IV drip.

But I didn’t come this far to fail. My wife and I looked at summer classes. The college offered the one course I had wanted to take but never had room for in my schedule. It would satisfy my final graduation requirement, and we had just enough money left for me to enroll in it.

The first day of the summer semester after I should have graduated, I walked into my advanced creative nonfiction writing class and hoped no one would notice me. I shouldn’t have been there, not with failure stamped in bold letters on my forehead. I sat in the back and busied myself with my notebook.

It didn’t take long, though, before I realized not graduating in the spring was the best thing that could have happened to me. I believe I grew more as a writer in that one semester than I did in all the years before it. The writers I surrounded myself with that summer helped me open up and give more to my readers, unpack scenes and savor every moment on the page, and embrace even the dark parts of my story and myself.

At the end of the class, I received my diploma. But I gained more than that. Like a phoenix from its ashes, I came out of failure a stronger writer than I’d ever been before.


Nathan was born and raised in Utah. He is married and has three beautiful sons. He attended Utah Valley University with a degree in English. Along with his own blog, Nathan works at 1-800-Contacts and is loving life with his little family. Check out Nathan’s blog:

“Sly Pig: The Blog of Nathan Cunningham”

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