Why I’m Glad I Didn’t Major in Creative Writing as a Writer

Studying abroad in Greece as an undergrad history & anthro major
Studying abroad in Greece as an undergrad history & anthro major

Despite the fact that I had always had a passion for writing, I didn’t major in creative writing as an undergraduate. At the time, my reasons for not choosing creative writing as a major were of the practical sort–I was trying to avoid the inevitable question of “What are you going to do with that?”

Instead, I double-majored in anthropology and history with an intent of going into archaeology. By the time I graduated, though, I had come full-circle to realize that, though I loved those subjects deeply, I didn’t necessarily want to practice them in a career. Mainly, I didn’t like doing the kind of writing that historians and archaeologists do.

As a graduate student, I ended up in an English M.A. program, and took my first-ever creative writing courses. It was an almost spiritual relief to write for those courses. No more footnotes, citations, carefully-structured arguments with supporting statements–unless I wanted those, of course. But I didn’t. I wanted to write about the world that I saw, and the worlds that others saw. I wanted to dive into new characters and walk around in their shoes and look at things through their eyes. I wanted to play with language, to throw words up in the air and watch them fall down onto the page like autumn leaves.

Creative writing was a welcome change of direction from the academic writing I had been doing for so long. But I’m glad that I did that academic writing first. I’m glad I didn’t major in creative writing as an undergrad.

Why?

Because my history and anthropology courses have given me something to write about. They provided me with new perspectives and new knowledge. They provided me with methods for research and analysis. Had I majored in creative writing, perhaps I would be a better wordsmith. But, ultimately, I don’t think my writing would be as good–simply because all I would have to write about (besides my own experiences) would be writing itself.

This is not to say you shouldn’t major in creative writing. It’s more to say–explore the world around you. Have interests outside of writing, and pursue those interests. They will only make you a better writer.

What do you think? Did you major in creative writing, or another subject?

For the Love of Flash

I am a novel girl. I love–and often need–to get lost in a narrative. Cathy Day, whom I took two courses with for my M.A., refers to this as the continuous fictional dream.  It’s that feeling you get when  you really, truly, fall into a book. When the characters become kindred spirits. When you reach the last page and look up with glazed eyes and wonder–what now? How do I go on living my life after that?

So, naturally, when I began taking creative writing courses during my Master’s program, I assumed I would be drawn to long-form fiction. My past writing had always been attempts at novels. Keyword–attempts. I never got much past the first thirty pages or so before losing steam. Life got in the way, or doubt crept into the margins, or something. For whatever reason, I would toss aside the notebook or stop opening the Word document where that little infant novel resided. Hmm–maybe I shouldn’t have kids.

After all those failed attempts at long form writing, I fell into a summer course centered around flash. Every week for five weeks we had to write a piece which could not exceed 750 words. Wait, this is a thing? Mind=blown.

Flash is a bit like poetry. I’ve never considered myself a poet, but after writing in the flash form, I definitely started to appreciate the poet’s work more. Working on something that small, you really get to dig into the language. For me, the process goes like this:

1. Carve out this huge shapeless chunk of rough stone. Don’t worry about the shape.

2. Start chiseling. Cut away the excess. Identify the meat of the story, the kernel you want to express, and remove everything else.

3. Cut the facets. You’re still cutting, trimming away all the extra bits, but now you’re doing it with a laser instead of a pickaxe.

4. Polish. Rub down the edges and hold it to the light. That kernel of truth should shine through every side as it turns.

I think I may return to long form writing eventually, but for now, flash is just so… shiny. How do you write? Long or short? Has it changed for you?

Writing Quiet

It’s been pretty well-discussed that waiting for the muse to hit you is not the best way to be a productive writer. When we create the time and space to write, writing happens. But I’ve found that just blocking off a two-hour window on my calendar isn’t necessarily the same thing.

I don’t know about you, but I tend to have my most interesting, reflective, and exciting flashes of creative thought when I’m in solitude. In my car driving to work in the morning, in the shower on a Saturday morning, taking a walk through the woods. Solitude and quiet–true quiet–forces our awareness of ourselves to the surface. We fully realize what’s inside, what’s outside, and how our inner and outer worlds come together when we are alone. It’s a frightening and inspiring experience, to feel truly alone, and to hear nothing but the sound of nature, or of water running down the shower drain, or of tires rolling across pavement. It makes us aware of ourselves even as it takes us out of ourselves.

When I don’t carve out space and time in my schedule to truly feel alone, in solitude and quiet, I feel less creative. I lose the inclination to write, and in so doing, I lose my deepest understanding of myself. I begin to lose touch with the things that make me feel like me.

I’m inclined to say I’m not entirely alone in this feeling; in his post on “The No. 1 Habit of Highly Creative People,” Leo Babauta collected some quotes on the virtues of solitude from creative people. Take Einstein, for example:

“On the other hand, although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”

This particular quote reminded me of my first week of college–my first time living in the same room with someone who wasn’t family. A few days after moving into the dorm, it was a particularly hot, sticky afternoon. I turned on the oscillating fan, flung myself on my bed, and proceeded to stare up at the ceiling–an action I didn’t think twice about. After a few minutes, my roommate was perplexed.

“What are you doing?” she asked. When I responded that I wasn’t doing anything, she scoffed.

“How can you just do nothing?”

Easily, I thought. But her words made me feel guilty, unproductive, and dull–like I should always be doing something, even if that something is just listening to music or painting my nails. Doing nothing was unacceptable.

I carried that little incident with me for a long time, because my roommate’s response to “doing nothing” had been such a strongly negative one. I had never before seen anything wrong with sitting in silence, and coming across someone who found it strange was jarring to my worldview.

Working at a Quaker college, even though I myself am not Quaker, has deepened my appreciation of silence and solitude. Worship, for traditional Quakers, involves a great deal of silence–silence which is only broken when someone in the congregation feels called to speak. I can’t begin to explain how deeply I identify with that practice–taking the time to truly listen to our inner selves, to the Spirit that’s within each of us. For me, it’s a necessity, but a hard one to come by sometimes in our constantly connected, clamoring world.

What about you? When and where do you find creativity in your life, and how do you connect with it?

Alumna Jennifer Banning On Her M.A. and Her Successful Job Search in Higher Education

A blog post I wrote for the Ball State English Department on how I’ve used my English degree in my career.

Ball State English Department

My life path, in terms of finding a career, has certainly been a winding one. I first graduated from Ball State in 2010, when I received my B.A. in Anthropology and History with a minor in French. During the following year, which I spent working with elementary-aged students, I learned quite a bit about myselflike the fact that although I enjoyed teaching and working with students, I missed higher education and interacting with both college-aged students and faculty.

Upon entering the M.A. program in English at Ball State, I had vague ideas about getting a teaching license in secondary education, but was mostly just interested in further developing my writing and research skills through creative writing and literature courses. As my graduation date of December 14, 2013 loomed nearer and nearer, I began to think more seriously about what, exactly, I ought to do for a career. I took stock of my…

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Making Writing a New Year’s Resolution

We’ve all heard the abysmal statistics about how most people don’t keep their new year’s resolutions. Old habits die hard. And yet, we keep making resolutions–there are even apps to help you follow through. I don’t think it takes much to realize that the problem with keeping resolutions is that we typically make them too big. “I’m going to work out every day,” says the person who doesn’t currently work out. Or, “I’m going to cut sugar out of my diet,” says the one with a sweet tooth.

My new year’s resolution is about my writing. I have a terrible habit of making excuses about why I’m too busy to write, or don’t have time, or am not in the mood. Over at Copyblogger Sonia Simone suggests making a resolution to write for twenty minutes every day in January. That’s a great idea, and it’s not too big that it’s impossible. However, I’m a little afraid of committing to even THAT much–because as soon as I miss one day, I’m going to feel like there’s no point in continuing because I’m-a-big-fat-failure-so-what’s-the-point. So, here’s my resolution: every day, I am going to open that Word document and just look at it for five minutes. 

I am never so busy that I don’t have five minutes, somewhere in my day, to spare for just looking at something. And I don’t have to be “in the mood” to write if I’m just looking at my writing. But, chances are, that five minutes of looking over what I’ve written is going to inspire me to dive in and write more. And on days when it doesn’t, or I really don’t have more than five minutes to spare, at least I looked at it that day. I kept my writing in my head and fresh and a part of my daily life. That’s my real resolution: to make my writing a part of my day every day, even in a small way.

What’s your new year’s resolution? And how do you keep writing in your life?

Basic Crochet Hat Pattern

Okay, today is seriously cold here in east central Indiana–my dad’s weather station says it’s 23.9 degrees right now, but it feels much colder. So, with winter clearly rolling in, what better project to start than a winter hat?

My cousin, who has the most adorable twin baby girls, asked me to make a couple of winter hats for them this last week–and I have to say, I was pretty pleased with the outcome. 

how stinkin' cute is she?!
how stinkin’ cute is she?!

Winter hats are generally pretty simple to make. For a basic hat, you start at the top with a flat circle, increasing the size of the circle to a certain size, at which point you then stop increasing and work down the sides. The tricky part is knowing how big to make that top circle, and for that, this handy chart has been my best friend.

Okay, so let’s make a hat. My friend needs one, so I’ll make a basic gray one for him. According to that above chart, a hat for an adult male will need to start off with a flat circle that’s 7.5 to 8 inches in diameter, and will measure about 9.25 to 9.5 inches from top to bottom once it’s finished.

Honestly, you can use just about any yarn and hook, and any stitch. As long as you have a flat circle of the right size to begin with, you can’t really go wrong. Using chunky yarns and big hooks will mean you’ll work fewer rounds than I did here.

Basic Crochet Hat Pattern

STITCHES
ch = chain
sl st = slip stitch
dc = double crochet (US double crochet, UK treble crochet)

Make a magic loop.  Ch 3.

Round 1: 11 dc in the magic loop. Sl st to the top of the first ch 3 to close the circle. Pull the magic loop tight. (12 total dc, including the first ch 3.)

Round 1
Round 1

Round 2: Ch 3. Dc in the same dc. 2 dc in each dc around. Sl st into the first ch 3.  (24 total dc, including the first ch 3.)

Round 2
Round 2

Round 3: Ch 3. 2 dc in the next dc. **1 dc in the next dc, 2 dc in the next dc.** Repeat from ** around.  Sl st into the first ch 3. (36)

Round 4: Ch 3. 1 dc in the next dc. 2 dc in the next dc. **1 dc in each of the next 2 dc, 2 dc in the next dc.** Repeat from ** around. Sl st into the first ch 3. (48)

Round 5: Ch 3. 1 dc in each of the next 2 dc. 2 dc in the next dc. **1 dc in each of the next 3 dc, 2 dc in the next dc.** Repeat from ** around. Sl st into the first ch 3. (60)

Round 6: Ch 3. 1 dc in each of the next 3 dc. 2 dc in the next dc. **1 dc in each of the next 4 dc, 2 dc in the next dc.** Repeat from ** around. Sl st into the first ch 3. (72)

Working round 6
Working round 6

Round 7: Ch 3. 1 dc in each of the next 4 dc. 2 dc in the next dc. **1 dc in each of the next 5 dc, 2 dc in the next dc.** Repeat from ** around. Sl st into the first ch 3. (84)

(Noticing a pattern yet? Continue, adding a stitch to the pattern in each round, until your circle is the right size. This pin might help you visualize what you’re doing. At the end of each round,  your total number of stitches should be a multiple of 12. I’m making a hat for a man, so according to this chart, my flat circle needs to be between 7.5 and 8 inches in diameter. 7 rounds got me to 7.5 inches. You may need fewer or more rounds, depending on the size of your hat and the weight of your yarn.)

Got your circle to the right size? Awesome. Now we start building up the sides.

Building up the sides of the hat
Building up the sides of the hat

Rounds 8 and on: **Ch 3. Dc in each dc around. Sl st to the first ch 3.** Repeat until the hat height is correct, and feel free to change out colors at the end of any round to make stripes. (My men’s hat should be between 9.25 and 9.5 inches from the top of the crown–the center of my magic loop–to the bottom edge.)

Ta-da! Your hat is finished. Stay warm out there!

A chunkier hat I made for myself
A chunkier hat I made for myself