A list of the things I wished I’d known in graduate school could fill up the internet. Hell, a list of the things I wished I’d know last week would be more than this blog could accommodate. But for purposes of this post, here are three thoughts…
Don’t write papers for your classes
Write papers for publication. They will be inspired by your classes, and they will have to adhere to whatever parameters your professors have set, but you should have an outlet or two in mind for eventual publication. Talk to your professors about where you could see the piece ending up so that they understand not only their expectations for the project, but also your goals. These two things may not always fit together, but at least you’ll know, and you can adjust based on the advice of your professors. It might end up that most of what you write in grad school does not get published. But having the larger goal in mind will get you through the moments when you feel like you are just spinning your wheels.
Don’t spend all of your time working
You are going to spend most of your time working. You already do spend most of your time working. But there are the occasional moments of respite. Or if not respite, moments when you just need some time, an hour, maybe even a day off. Moments when you just can’t. This is fine. But in those moments, do something else you love. You might not know what this something else is yet. Try things. Get a hobby! I know that sounds trite, but it isn’t. Having something else you “do” will buoy you when you feel sunk by your academic work.
This “something else” can be just about anything else. Learn to cook more. Learn to play the guitar. Learn Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. It can be literally anything.
If all you can imagine doing in your time away from your studies is watching Netflix, fine. Make that into a project. Watch all of Jane Campion’s films over the course of a couple weeks. Pick a year and watch only movies from that year. Invite friends to join you. Make your thing a thing.
Specifying the project will stave off those God-I-really-should-be-working feelings, and will thus allow you to actually recharge.
You can decide to do this
My MFA program had, at any given time, one hundred students. But that wasn’t all of the writers hanging around. There were also the nonfiction writers (the CNF program was housed in a different department). Plus there were not a few writers who’d graduated and stuck around the very comfortable, very writer-friendly hamlet in the cornfields. There were even a couple folks here and there who had moved there to be in proximity to program and to take classes here and there as they could. My point being that even in this one little town—a scale model, if you will, of the larger literary world—there were a hell of a lot of writers.
Some had already published quite a bit, others none at all. Some came from Ivy League undergraduate programs, others from vast state schools. Some grew up surrounded by books and art and the like, others were raised on television game shows.
I was of the none at all/state school/game shows breed.
This is not to say that some didn’t have certain advantages. They did. I did. But my point is that none of those factors seem to have made all that much difference in future publishing (or not to the extent one might fear). I firmly believe that those who have gone on to publish did so because they wanted to and because they kept at it. And they kept at it because they loved it. It wasn’t for just for publication. It wasn’t in service of all daydreams where they get interviewed by Teri Gross (you know you’ve had them). It was love.
This can be you. You can do this thing if you want to and if you work at it and if you approach reading and writing and teaching with humility. A lack of humility is the greatest barrier to learning and, in turn, achievement. So as you look around you at your fellow graduate students, know that none of them, not even those who seem to be riding on the big float at the head of the parade, are a “shoo in” for a life of academic/literary/whatever success.
No matter who you are or where you came from or how many times this week you felt like you were utterly up against it, you can do this.
Dr. Ian Stansel is an Assistant Professor in the English Department.