One Yalie’s bohemian existence

Krista Madsen ’95 was never a fan of practicality.

At Yale, she surrounded herself with impractical people — poets and artists and writers like herself. She dreamed of setting out with them after college to pursue bohemian lives as artists.

One would think from reading Yale publications that Yale alumni fall into one of two categories: those who join the establishment and make it big, and those who buck the establishment and make it big anyway.

But one rarely hears from Yalies like Madsen, an unpublished novelist, who have not found fame and fortune, and yet do not regret a thing.

As graduation day approached in 1995, Madsen saw her artist friends begin to slink down more professional paths.

“All my friends, who I thought were in the same boat as me, poets or artists, all started confiding to me one by one that they were pre-med or going to law school,” Madsen said. “Everybody was getting a little too practical.”

Madsen applied to writing programs at about 10 graduate schools, she said, but did not get in. One afternoon, she saw a handwritten postcard-sized piece of paper in Yale Station saying, “Come live with us in Belgium, and come take care of our little four-year-old boy. You needn’t speak a word of French.”

In the time-honored tradition of American expatriate authors, Madsen decided to head to Europe.

Madsen’s father, Elmer Madsen, an electrical engineer, was dismayed when Krista told him of her plans. But his daughter, he said, told him very clearly that she was not asking for his permission.

Elmer Madsen had always been fiercely proud of Krista when she came home from school or college with glowing remarks on her papers and essays, or published articles in the local Bristol paper. But although he said he believes Krista has the ability to be a great writer, he worries about the uncertainty of a writer’s career.

“You show me a father in the world who doesn’t want to see his daughter living in a big house on a hill,” he said. “As a father, you’d like to see her with a steady paycheck coming in and proving herself.”

Krista Madsen said that with pressure from parents and looming debts, the pull was strong to get into a profession that could yield security and affluence. But she decided to resist the temptation.

“You choose your own reality,” Madsen said. “I still don’t believe there’s a real world, and I think people working in offices are in the fakest world of all.”

Madsen struck out for Europe with her notebook and her idealistic notions as her only companions. She found out very quickly that being an au pair did not live up to her romantic expectations.

“There was this 4-year-old boy who thought I was a monster, and vice versa,” Madsen said. “Not only did I not speak the language, but I was also washing their dishes.”

But Madsen took copious notes and began compiling material for a quote book. She came back from Europe and began working at an advertisement agency, but felt that the job, with its budgets and bottom lines, was very ill-suited to her. After eight months, she left and “embarked on attempting being unemployed for a while.”

When her money ran out, she applied for temporary jobs.

“Temp jobs are wonderful because the people you encounter are never what they do by day,” Madsen said. “I met the smartest people when I had the most tedious jobs. I realized I don’t want to tire myself out with what I do by day because then I’ll have no energy for what I do on the side.”

Meanwhile, Elmer Madsen had been worrying about his daughter’s seeming lack of direction and tried to reason with her about getting a job that would earn a livelihood. But she would not listen.

“When I’d try to communicate with her, she’d say, ‘Oh dad, you’re so materialistic,'” Elmer Madsen said.

Krista Madsen had been writing constantly during this period, and one day her father found a piece she had written on the Internet.

“I’ve only been afraid of it because as a parent, I worry, ‘Is she going to write about me?'” Elmer Madsen said.

He said that when he asked his daughter if he could read her latest drafts, she told him, “Oh no, you wouldn’t understand it, and I think she used the word ‘prude,'” Elmer Madsen said.

Krista Madsen has finished two novels that she said she does not really show to anyone.

“I have a short attention span when it comes to my own writing,” Madsen said. “Once you start the new thing, you hate the old thing. Now I’m starting a third, which I think is the one.”

Madsen was accepted to graduate school when she applied again after living in the “real world” for a few years, and is now in her last semester of a master’s program in creative writing, with a concentration in fiction. She writes a lot of short stories now for her classes, and she says that, like many people, she had a revelation after Sept. 11.

“Maybe I should try to get published,” Madsen said. “Maybe I shouldn’t just write for the sake of writing with my own little lonely laptop.”

But Madsen said that in spite of having little to show for all her work, she would not trade her lifestyle for any other.

“This is probably the first time in my life where I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and I’m so happy,” Madsen said. “It feels like the older I get, the more meandering my life gets. — I’m probably earning less now than I did in high school.”

Madsen said there are still vestiges of the pressure she feels from her parents to “get a real job.”

“I have really down-to-earth parents, and yet there were conflicting messages,” Madsen said. “On the one hand there was the perfectionist message — ‘Go to Yale and be the best of the best’ — and on the other hand there was the ‘go do the art thing.'”

Elmer Madsen grappled with the same issues in his own life. Madsen, who is 70 years old, has 22 patents in different engineering fields. He has worked all his life, and still goes in every day to work at his own business, his wife, Joanne Madsen, said.

But years ago, as a child, Madsen dreamed not of being a scientist, but of becoming a painter.

“That’s what everybody thought I should do, become a painter,” Madsen said. “I always promised myself I’d go back to doing some painting.”

Krista Madsen ’95 passed up the life of security and steady pay checks her father had envisioned in order to pursue what she calls “that scary life of being a writer.”
Courtesy KristaMadsen
Krista Madsen ’95 passed up the life of security and steady pay checks her father had envisioned in order to pursue what she calls “that scary life of being a writer.”

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