What Writing Studies Has Taught Me

Writing studies isn’t just about writing, unlike other programs. It’s not about learning theory or solving equations or studying until 3 a.m. while trying to retain course information. It’s about who you are and what you have to say and how you’re going to say it. It’s about why you need to say it. It’s about searching your soul and claiming it as your own, while sharing pieces of it. Writing studies is deeply intimate; I have spoken to my professors and my classmates about things even my closest friends do not know.

What does it teach you, then? How to interpret a poem? How to write a story? Yes, but it’s more than that and, in the spirit of creative non-fiction, I will “show, not tell” you.

I have wanted to be a writer since I was a teenager. Part of me wanted to be a writer before that, too; I’ve always had characters living in my head. It took years to admit my aspirations to myself, and even longer to admit to my friends and family, because a career in writing rarely pays well and isn’t known for its job security. Even though I spent my free time in high school drafting and redrafting stories and a novel, I was still determined to pursue a business degree because that was what a practical, rational, future-thinking person would do; secure futures do not come from writing degrees so I didn’t consider it an option. Or so I told myself.

It took three weeks of university for me to drop that plan. My brain works in bursts of colour and strings of words, not numbers and graphs and charts. In my other courses I was already reading work that inspired me and challenged me in the best ways; in my business course I was working three times as hard as everyone else for below-average results. I was miserable, depressed and full of fear. This was supposed to be the “safe” and “easy” route, yet I felt like I was drowning. The future I saw for myself felt like a long, black tunnel of solely doing what I “had” to do for the sake of security. But I didn’t feel secure. So I signed up for a writing class in my second semester because writing had always been what grounded me.

It was better than anything I imagined. I had taken a writing course in high school—the sole writing course offered at my private school—and I had loved it. It had inspired me to write the second draft of my novel. But this introductory writing course took me beyond what I thought writing studies, and university, could be. It was so different, in fact, that I replaced my dual degree aspirations with a major in MIT and a minor in Creative Writing.

The first thing I had to get used to was rearranging classrooms so I could see pretty much everyone in the class. This action is still weird and time consuming and just straight-up frustrating. But by rearranging the space, suddenly I wasn’t being taught at. I was learning with my professor and my peers and we were all the teacher in one way or another because we actively helped each other hone our craft. By more-or-less sitting in a circle, suddenly our voices were important and equal. It taught me about community and the importance of discussing your work with other creative minds because the more minds that are working on a piece, the more thoughtful the piece will be.

As the years of my education have gone on, the lessons have gotten harder. Unlike other courses where each week has a lecture topic, in writing courses we are reading and writing and critiquing and workshopping. We’re diving into the thick of our minds and we learn on a case-by-case, story-by-story basis. We’re searching for our voice and we’re experimenting and we’re failing over and over again.

One of the greatest things my professors have taught me is that I’m not good enough yet and I’m not going to be for a long time. It sounds harsh, but one of the central teachings of creative writing is accepting where you are. It takes time to find your rhythm—your voice—and it takes years of trying and failing to come into your writing. Pretending like your writing is perfect when you’re just starting out encourages hubris, not growth. I’ve been taught to have a thick skin: to welcome criticism because without it I cannot grow.

Welcoming criticism doesn’t mean that sitting in a room full of over 25 near strangers who are reading your soul in front of you is easy. Don’t get me wrong: I always shake the entire time. It gets even harder because you can’t respond to anyone’s comments until the workshop is done; it can feel impossible not to defend yourself, to justify yourself… to separate your personal connection to the work from the work itself. Instead you just have to listen and, because I have a lot to say, this challenged me. But this taught me to really listen to what other people are saying without simultaneously forming a response.

My professors have taught me that writing is hard. It feels silly to have to say that, but it is. It isn’t just the act of writing that is full of fury and hopelessness and shame (as well as many other, wonderful things), but it’s editing it. It’s working out if cement mixers jump or if they churn and if the pigment of your lover’s hair is more jet black or espresso. It’s about expanding your vocabulary. It’s about working out how to make a career out of a passion which you never want to fizzle and die. It’s about trying to work out if you have the potential to make it as a writer and considering as many alternate careers as possible so your writing can just be your solace on the side. Many professors and guest lecturers have spoken to writing careers in similar ways: “if you can have a career outside of writing without feeling something inside you irrevocably die, do it. If you can’t, surrender yourself to your work.”

When it all comes down to it, they’ve taught me to open up. To surrender. To leap at my fears and to let out the truths that only I can know unless I put voice to them. I’ve had to sit down and write about things that I absolutely do not want to write about, whether they be events or feelings, because it is what we don’t want to write about that we have to write about. I’ve learned to listen to myself and to source the pain inside me. They’ve taught me how to find the wounds I’ve ignored and poke and prod at them. To keep going when they start to bleed because there’s glass in there and I need to pull it out. Once it’s out—once the source of the pain has scattered itself across the page—the real healing begins. That’s when I can accept my pain, claim it as my own, and shape it.

But to reach this place of insight and healing I have to be vulnerable while sitting in a glass box: while displaying myself for scrutiny from my peers and professors. While putting myself up for a mark out of 100 over and over until I forget that I am more than a numeric quantifier. My professors have given me tools to manage this vulnerability; encouragement to live as vibrantly as possible so the worlds inside of me multiply; and strength to stand tall, free of shame, and be who I am and say what I have to say.