Associate editor Karolina Wilk sent us this post at year’s end. For those of you considering graduate school, Karolina has some sound observations to consider.
In the spirit of end-of-the-year contemplation, and also because ’tis the season for college applications, I have been reflecting on my experience so far in a graduate writing program and decided to share.
Currently, I have completed 15 credits in a graduate writing program, and have 9 to go before my thesis semester, so I’m a little past the midway point. Grad school has been a great experience, though not quite what I expected. Here’s what I’ve learned in grad school that I didn’t expect:
1. Nobody likes workshops. The structure is strange for most writers who are introspective and introverted. Without the right workshop leader, or the right workshop participants, it can veer into negative and destructive territory pretty quickly. Everyone is scared to death of a “workshop story,” but everyone still gives “workshop story” advice. The bad news is: you have to be in lots of workshops. The good news is: everyone else gets frustrated with it, too. Think of it as a writer’s right of passage. And an opportunity for copious amounts of cross-classroom eye rolling over did-he-really-just-say-that. Plus, you’re bound to walk away with at least one useful thing in even the worst workshop. And if you make it into a workshop where everyone “gets” everyone else and it’s an energetic sphere of support, breakthroughs, and productivity—it’s pretty magical.
2. There are no rules, seriously. Writing rules were made to be broken—as long as it “works” for the story. All those writers you’re studying in your program probably broke lots of writing rules to be so well known. But then again, you’re not Junot Diaz, are you? Why don’t you just go ahead and follow only these rules for now until you write something for the Paris Review? What—you didn’t start writing to think about it in terms of rules, equations, and algorithms? Well, you probably just aren’t taking it seriously enough. Oh, and by the way, everyone has different definitions of “these rules,” though my interpretations are obviously the most thoughtful. But you’re a writer. You probably shouldn’t listen to rules. Write from your heart. But you know, then again, there are some rules for a good reason…
3. Related to #1 and #2: there are things not worth listening to. Not everyone is going to “get” what you do, and not everyone is going to like what you write. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it—what it means is, you don’t necessarily need to listen to those people in your workshops. Figure out whose writing you admire, who provides truly thoughtful and specific feedback, and whose feedback you honestly think would help your writing (even if and especially when it’s not what you want to hear)—and listen to them.
4. Writing is work. And sometimes, that means it’s not going to be fun. Sometimes it’s going to be hard and exhausting and take a really long time. You might have to take a long, hard look at why you write and make sure it matches what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. For me, that resulted in transferring programs so that I could find a balance with my non-writing life to better fuel my creativity.
5. What you don’t know might surprise you. You probably have some sense of what needs improving in terms of craft (I just can’t get this character right/ I really want to try something more experimental/ How do I better use metaphors)—but sometimes, you learn a few other things that you didn’t know you needed to learn. For me, some of my favorite newly learned skills have to do with the writing process. Turns out, my creative writing comes easiest in short bursts squeezed between other activities, but I need large chunks of time for better revision and drafting. I also learned a new strategy for revision: when reworking a draft, I now pull chunks of it out from different sections into new documents and try various approaches to “fix” whatever issue I’m trying to rework. I end up with my original draft still saved, several frustrating half-finished versions, and one final version that often looks very different from the first. Listening to other writers—mentors, professors, classmates—talk about writing in and out of a classroom context has allowed me to rethink my own process.
6. It’s a little ridiculous, but that’s okay. It’s a bunch of writers reading other writers, writing about writing, reading writers that influence their writing, then writing things, and getting together to talk about their writing within the context of other writers. It’s all so meta. I mean, it’s kind of silly, right? Can’t we all just laugh a little? (No? Just me?) Just because it’s professional, doesn’t mean it can’t also be a bit absurd. Sometimes you need to laugh at yourself to lighten the mood before getting back to being serious about your work. Then again, that could be pretty difficult since it’s a bunch of writers. Neurotic, paranoid, self-conscious, competitive, highly observant writers. It’s bound to get a little weird sometimes… But at least it’s your kind of weird.
7. Your voice has value. Your professors and mentors and classmates learn things from you, even if they’re published more widely or have been writing longer or whatever. There is no one quite like you, no matter how many writers there are. If you took all the workshop participants in all the graduate writing programs in all the world and gave them the same prompt, they would all write a different story. Don’t let anybody turn your voice into someone else’s. Take what you learn from others and use what you need to make your voice sharper, clearer, and most true.