Tag Archives: Creativity

Reflections on a First Semester in Grad School

AcademyI’m twenty-five percent of the way finished with my Master’s Degree in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Most of what I’ve encountered is unsurprising: the workload is tough, the Midwest is flat. However, there are certain things I’ve learned, perhaps unique to my own situation, that I wish I’d known earlier this summer.

  1. Maturity is a state of mind. I’m the youngest person I’ve met in the creative writing segment of my department, and I’m often made to feel like a little kid, like I don’t quite belong, among the adults (at least among most of the writers I’ve met). Many are PhD students with an MFA or an MA. In truth, I don’t quite fit in with most of the other writers stylistically, humorously, or aesthetically. Both my writing and self are plain weird, and I’m surrounded by tradition and formality. I don’t want to sacrifice my identity to fit in, though. I’d rather be a transplanted weirdo in the Midwest than a converted Midwesterner. Growing up isn’t about leaving behind parts of myself that don’t meet others’ expectations; it’s about maintaining myself in increasingly diverse and challenging situations.
  2. Discussions of craft are not as important as craft itself. Every discussion of craft I’ve had so far consists of an extensive mythology of what other writers did to keep themselves writing, followed by the refrain, do what works for you; coffee, rum, fishing in the Missouri River, whatever will help crank out a daily three to four pages. My own method involves writing for those who inspire me, unhealthy amounts of caffeine, and hikes in nature (which I’ve yet to find near Lincoln).
  3. Nothing is more important than the writing. I came to graduate school to write, and to publish, and to understand literature and improve myself intellectually, but my primary goal is to crank out three to four pages a day, no matter what.
  4. Friendship is more important than the writing. Friends are increasingly hard to come by the higher I climb into academia. Allies are nice, but the few friends I’ve made are crucial to my survival. Without them, I’d have no support for my experimentation. Plus, writing can be lonely, and being cooped up all day is a good way to get cabin fever.
  5. Contradictions are okay (and inevitable). Graduate life, much like undergraduate life, is complex and full of numerous contradictions. Some are basic: a free ride still requires one thousand dollars of student fees per semester. Some are more complex: writing depends upon time and inspiration, but inspiration usually comes from things requiring time not spent writing (loved ones, caffeine, hiking). Fortunately, I now have the benefit of knowing exactly what I need to survive the next seventy-five percent of my degree: writing, friends, coffee, a place to hike, more confidence in my weirdness, and a few more publications would be tolerable, I suppose.

Look out, 2016, here I come.

-jk

When a Story Strikes

Blank PagesCreativity is sneaky; it can strike at the most inopportune moments, and writers need to be prepared. Writers can find inspiration while showering, cooking biscotti, giving back rubs, performing open heart surgery, or in my case all of the above simultaneously, and creative ideas can whither if not recorded quickly enough. Many writers, myself included, carry around small notebooks to salvage sudden ideas.

Sometimes, the best preparations fall short. While flying home this week, I was enjoying the on-flight complimentary burned coffee when something in my brain clicked, and an idea for a story crystallized.

Before I could pull out my notebook and pen, the plane began to shake. The pilot announced that we should remain seated through the turbulence, “even if you do like it shaken, not stirred.” My tray table lurched as I flipped to the next blank page and scribbled down every detail of my brilliant, wonderful story idea while it was still fresh.

Several hours later, as I waited for the shuttle to my hometown, I had a few spare moments to look back at the brilliant, wonderful, award-winning story idea. Instead, I found in my notebook a slim paragraph of what looked like ancient hieroglyphics. My handwriting is bad to begin with; add a jittery writing space and a lack of patience, and clarity is doomed. I could make out the words “old man” and “saucepan” amid the scribbles, but otherwise my brilliant, wonderful, paradigm-shifting story idea was illegible.

Rest in peace, story idea. I’m sure what I would have titled “The Old Man and the Saucepan” would have been excellent. In my rush to preserve it intact, I lost it entirely. As a writer, I should slow down sometimes. More importantly, I should learn to trust myself to utilize a half-formed idea. Even the best ideas I’ve recorded legibly have evolved. Art, after all, is a process of evolution, patient and sometimes careless. The key to producing good art is the ability to improvise. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to clean biscotti dough out of my shower drain.

-jk