College and Change

lol snacks from Costco: staples of my freshman year.

What I brought to Fairfield! So many snacks from Costco. Not included: my Capri Sun, which was a staple in my freshman year.

It’s that time again. College students bid farewell to a care-free summer with “Throwback Thursday” Instagrams of beaches and late-night beer debauchery. They express their excitement for the new school year with Facebook statuses littered with exclamation marks and emojis. Recent graduates now stuck at work tweet nostalgic memories of their first days at school.

A small part of me wishes that I can go back. I sit here, marveling that it’s been more than three months since I became a Fairfield University alumna. Three months ago, I was in class, staring at the blackboard, and desperately waiting for a nap. I was so tired by the end of my senior year. Waiting to be finished with homework. Waiting to relieve some burden that came with working at the school newspaper. Waiting to have more freedom. And now I’ll never get to go back to this time—that is, unless I decide to continue my education.

As a student I was sometimes naïve when it came down to simple tasks, sometimes wild-eyed after many sleepless nights—the result of writing essays the night before—and sometimes firmly rooted to the ground in bouts of striking certainty. Like a sculptor with a block of clay, my years at school had chipped away at my being, molding me into the person I am today. I loved my college experience, and don’t regret much, but there are still a few things that I wish I’d known from the beginning.

  1. It’s impossible to be perfect.

Like many peers, I’ve learned from plenty mistakes. I evaluate each school year by measuring my mistakes. Freshman year? I made plenty of mistakes, so it was a bit rough. Senior year? I made just enough to help me learn. My biggest mistake, however, had to do with trying to be perfect, and for a few months in freshman year, I didn’t understand what it meant to learn.

Dr. Sonya Huber, one of my favorite English professors, recently posted a shadow syllabus with her thoughts on what students should take away from her courses. She writes, “Those who aim for A’s don’t get as many A’s as those who abandon the quest for A’s and seek knowledge or at least curiosity.” You might attend a university with students raised in a certain culture of expectations. Take this many AP classes. Get involved in as imany extracurricular activities as possible. Volunteer just about anywhere. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. These experiences padded your resume and got you into the school, but they have no true worth unless you value what you learn. Fixating on that A sucks the fun out of learning! In freshman year, I received a C on a journalism assignment, a grade that pretty much slapped my A-slaving side right out of me. I didn’t deserve a better grade because I didn’t actually understand my assignment. When you pay attention to what you do have and what you do know, you live and breathe the process. Remember that it’s the process that matters. The end result is your reward.

  1. Similarly, show professors that you’re responsible and willing to learn.

I’ve often heard my classmates complain about professors. She’s such a hard grader. I don’t understand him at all! He doesn’t understand us. If these complaints are true, and the professor’s behavior persists, I would suggest dropping out of the course and finding another professor, if possible. But thankfully in most of my experiences, professors have been brilliant and compassionate, and it’s the students who need to adjust their attitude. Professors actually want to help you, so let them see that you’re willing to strive, not just achieve. After graduating, I think about the professors who not only taught me, but also inspired me, and I wish that all students could find professors like them, people whom I truly respect.

  1. My next advice is to forge supportive, drama-free friendships.

Going to college means finding your social group. Yes, it’s one of the most nerve-wracking feelings. At first you might feel like reinventing yourself. Here’s where people won’t know that you peed in your pants in sixth grade! They haven’t seen your glasses and braces phase! This is your chance to be cool! Chances are you’ll find a nice group of people and you’ll go everywhere with them: to dorm parties, late-night Starbucks runs, campus excursions. There’s a chance that you’ll stay friends with these people (that’s me!). But just like the teddy bear that you carried around everywhere as a toddler, you might find yourself outgrowing these friends. Know that this happens all the time. It just means you’re changing and you can’t have people holding you back.

When you have your friends, and you know them as well as you know yourself, then that’s the group to have. Challenge each other, but also be each other’s biggest supporters. Now that’s lifelong friends.

  1. In the grand scheme of things, your physical existence is small, but your decisions and your actions can make a great impact.

It’s easy to get stuck in a bubble of oblivion when you’re stuck on a small campus. But these days, schools encourage their students to have a global viewpoint and to be leaders. How will you become this person who’s set to change parts of the world? Do your own work. Listen to your mentors. Go out of your comfort zone.

I suggest keeping one foot on campus and another foot somewhere in the outside world. Internships are invaluable ways to do just that—places where you learn and also save connections for later. You can also find an extracurricular activity that aligns with your career goal (Mirror, FTW!)

College students, this is your chance to become who you’re meant to be. Don’t waste your time. Embrace yourself and embrace the life that you’re creating in college.

“And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

Jesus' SonWe say we’ll do something, then we never do it.

always say that I’ll read more short stories that’s been published in journals and collections, but I haven’t picked up a full collection since reading The Paris Review‘s “Object Lessons.”

En route to my tap dance class yesterday night, I stopped by Greenlight Bookstore, a Brooklyn indie bookstore on Fulton Street to peruse their bookshelves. I was actually looking for a copy of “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace,” by Joe Williams, which I read for a grammar course (Amazon sucks, by the way, because they never gave me my order!), but the store didn’t have a copy. Naturally, I gravitated toward the fiction section, and thought, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if I could find a short story collection to read?”

As if on cue, a bright green and yellow book cover caught my attention. The cover belonged to “Jesus’ Son,” a short story collection by Denis Johnson, whom Newsday calls the “synthesizer of profoundly American voices.”

I love being swept away by a story. That means missing your subway stop because you entrench yourself in an imaginary world. That means being mentally gone. That all happened to me when I read the opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.” In the middle of a rain storm, the narrator, who’s high and drunk, gets into a car that later kills a man. I got déjà vu, because I remember reading the last line of the story: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” (Turns out it was in “Object Lessons”).

Just take apart that line and see how much you can get from it. It’s in second-person, so you sense that the tone is aggressive. I imagine a man spitting out the word “ridiculous”–maybe even snarling. You can tell that the narrator (“Fuckhead”) is angry without even having to read the whole story. You might even feel pity for him, too, because you wonder why he’s saying this. What leads him to take drugs in the first place? The narrator’s bitterness urges me to turn the pages. He’s a junkie hitchhiking, and the accident changes him, but it doesn’t seem horrible to him in that moment, because he’s still high. Years later, however, he still remembers this accident.

I love writers who can put pressure behind prose, so that it becomes, as one editor once told me, “a story that sticks with you as reader – one that matters today and will matter a year from now.”

I’m hoping to hone my craft by reading many short stories. While I am at work on a novel, I have a list of short stories that need to be submitted. (That’s right, it needs to happen). I recently finished writing another short story called “Let’s Eat Heart for Dinner.” I hope someday that you’ll get to read my stories, and feel the pressure behind my words.

For now: on to the rest of “Jesus’ Son.”

Question for readers: Who are some of your favorite short fiction writers? Comment below!

In search of a writing community

photo

Oh wow! Writers in their natural habitats!

In a previous blog post, I wrote about loneliness and the transition from college life to semi-adult life. Short summary: It wasn’t going very well. My way of coping, of abating that loneliness, was to write. Interestingly enough, after I published that post, a stranger on Twitter suggested that writing could also be the cause of loneliness. I suppose this person is half-right; when you’re doing something you love, you’re in the moment, and you can forget where you are. But I don’t want writing to prevent me from meeting people; I decided that writing should help me meet people.

I immediately began my search for writing groups in NYC and Brooklyn, and let me tell you: The quest was exhausting. I left my first meeting feeling utterly disappointed. I was the youngest person in attendance, and felt as if the older members devalued my opinions. They were also creepy.

Then I attended a Gotham Writers’ Workshop course in downtown Brooklyn, which turned out to be a much better experience. I felt included—perhaps it was because the instructor sought to make all writers feel comfortable. Despite this, I’m not sure I’d want to pay $20 for another course. The instructor only allowed us to offer positive feedback. I’m all for positive energy, but I wonder how we’ll improve as writers if we receive only positive feedback. Perhaps I am used to seeing my writing be brutally torn apart, thanks to my journalism experience (starting with the time I got a 76 on my first journalism assignment in Dr. Simon’s freshman news writing class…but that doesn’t really matter…)

Anyways, guys, I’ve finally found a writers’ group. It’s been around for twelve years, with a solid core and a welcoming attitude toward newer members like moi. I’ve attended four meetings so far, recently returning from a session last night, and I feel like I can belong here eventually. I really enjoyed meeting and talking to the other writers. There’s a writer who is a financial analyst by day and a horror screenwriter by night, a former Silicon Valley techie working on a (surprise!) technology thriller, and a librarian writing the next big teen novel (sans vampires).

Here’s the drill: we chat for a few minutes and then take an hour to work on our writing. After the host says stop, we spend two and a half hours reading and critiquing each other’s works. Three types of readers usually show up to these meetings. There are the immediate volunteers. This person is confident enough to be the first to read. Or, this person is overly confident and likes the sound of his or her own voice (ew). There are the reluctant sharers. They look around and see no one volunteering. They decide, after a sigh, to read. There are the oh-god-don’t-look-at-me non-readers. They usually sit in the corner and frantically shake their heads when asked to read. They don’t share in fear that they might be horrible—but by doing this, they might be brilliant writers, but we’d never know it.

I can be any of these three types of people, but I tend to be the reluctant reader. I’ve always been a self-conscious speaker, because I stumble over my words. Good thing I can practice at these meetings! It actually helps to listen to myself. For example, if I struggle with a sentence, I make sure to mark the spot and see if I can smooth it out later.

As much as I love writing and reading my work, my favorite part is the feedback session. Over the years I’ve received countless writing advice from trustworthy writers, and I like to absorb all that I can to become a better writer. Naturally, I want other writers to feel like they’re receiving constructive feedback—something they can use and not just think about. At the last group meeting, our critique got intensely detailed. For about twenty minutes, we pondered if it was right for a particular character to drink Bass Pale Ale. Yes, I know how silly that sounds, but we were all serious! Is this character really a Bass guy? Or would he drink Guinness? Decisions, decisions (As a non-drinker, I tried to play along).

I do worry, however, that some feedback will go unheard. Writers can’t help but feel a small stab whenever they receive critiques. There are some who can swallow their pride, and there are others who feel the need to defend their every word. I’m sure people have felt the frustration of explaining a critique only to find a writer completely intolerant to the idea that maybe – just maybe – they have committed a fault in their writing. Because of this, I sometimes prefer writing feedback, rather than giving it to the person upfront (yay reader’s reports!)

I’m so excited for more writing sessions!

In effort to become more social on the web (I hear writers need to do that these days), here’s a question to end this post: writers, what do you think of writers’ groups?