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?

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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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The Liberal Arts Career

I work as a Career Adviser at a small liberal arts college in Indiana. More often than I’d like, I have students come in for appointments feeling lost and overwhelmed and disappointed in their choice of major. Most often these students are seniors, which is understandable. Why? Because, as liberal arts majors about to graduate, they feel like they are about to be cut loose and thrown into the “real world” with no clear-cut path in front of them.

Srsly, leaving college is not the end of the world.
Srsly, leaving college is not the end of the world.

I can relate. It’s easy, as a college senior or recent grad in the liberal arts, to look at your peers in vocational or technical schools with envy. Why didn’t I do that? you think. Life would be so much easier! At least, that’s what I thought after walking out of my institution’s doors with a B.A. in history and anthropology. Now what?

The value of the liberal arts seems to be on everyone’s minds lately. Even the President recently apologized for taking a jab at art history majors while making the case for more specialized training. On the other hand, Thomas L. Friedman’s op-ed piece on How to Get a Job at Google and this HuffPost article on the value of humanities majors both argue that the liberal arts can and do prepare students for a job. With the economy still limping along, college students (and their parents) want to make sure their college education has worth. But how do you measure the worth of an education?

It’s true that a liberal arts degree does not set you up for a specific job in the way a degree in, say, Dental Hygiene or Aviation Maintenance does. No, a liberal arts degree does not prepare for you a job; it prepares  you for a career.

Ah, career. What does it mean, exactly? As a Career Adviser, I run into a variety of (mis)perceptions of this word. Some academics fear it–when we talk about preparing students for a career, they immediately imagine a gray little cubicle in a dreary office, a once-bright mind drooling over a keyboard and punching out data for some nameless corporation. But that is not a career; that is a job.

Let’s open our friend, the dictionary. (Or dictionary.com, in this case.) The first two definitions from the World English Dictionary are as follows:

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A path through life. This is a career. It is not a job; it is not even a series of jobs. It is your life work. The things you do, whether paid or unpaid, which make up your life story. Aha. So even though my job title is Career Adviser, my career involves so much more than that; my writing, my research, the work I do for my church, the volunteering I do through community organizations–that is my career. No matter what jobs I hold along the way, I know my career will always revolve around these things, because these things are a part of who I am and what I do on a daily basis.

A liberal arts degree prepares you for a career–for your life work, for your ongoing development as a human being, for a life of learning and engagement. The technical skills needed for many of the jobs out there can be learned, fairly quickly and easily. It takes more time and effort to develop skills like problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity.

As hard as it is not to compare yourself to others, my biggest advice to liberal arts grads is to do just that. Your career path will not be straight or direct, and that’s okay. Allow yourself time to explore, to develop your interests and skills. Focus your energy not on landing a job, but on building the life you want. Most importantly, be creative. Your career path does not have to look like your parents’ or your friends’, nor does your definition of success.

Jen Banning Recommends ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood

A blog post I wrote for the Ball State English Department Blog back in March 2013. This is a review of Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’

Ball State English Department

Jen Banning graduated summa cum laude from Ball State University with majors in history and anthropology in 2010.  She is currently pursuing an M.A. in general English with a focus on creative writing. In the latest installment of our “Recommended Reads” series, Jen recommends The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood.

As a history and anthropology undergrad-turned-English grad student, I find it hard to resist a good retelling of Greek mythology.  Though the myth of The Odyssey has been told and retold countless times, Margaret Atwood takes on the tale in an irreverent and thought-provoking manner by breathing life into Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful and patient wife.  A part of Canongate’s Myths Series, The Penelopiad reinterprets the familiar legend from a woman’s perspective, exploring issues of justice, gender norms, and storytelling.

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Writer’s Burnout, and How to Deal

Writer’s burnout. I wasn’t sure this was a thing until I Googled the term and came up with articles like “The 3 Secrets of Surviving Writer Burnout” and “Recover from Writing Burn Out: 18 Tips for Writing with Gusto.” But finding those articles brought me some relief: it’s not just my imagination, other people experience it, and there are ways to deal.

So, what is it? Writer’s block on steroids? Laziness? Lack of motivation? The result of being overworked and stressed?

For me, I feel like it’s probably a combination of most of these, compounded and fed by my being in grad school for two and a half years. Grad school, work, life–it can really zap the creativity out of you if you let it. Furthermore, being in school provides some external structure to your writing and reading–assignments and due dates force you to get work done. Having that structure fall away can be disorienting, so it’s important to find ways to replace it with a schedule or structure of your own making.

I think it’s okay to take some time, every once in a while, and just do nothing–it helps us reset the clock, recharge, and find balance. But once that’s been done, you have to find a way to restart, and that can be the hard part. Admittedly, I’ve done very little reading and/or writing in the past month–after graduating from grad school, I felt mentally exhausted, and allowed myself to slack off and more or less veg out for a few weeks. But it’s time to find some ways to kickstart my writing.

I have two note cards tacked to my bulletin board above my desk. One is a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” The other is from Ecclesiastes 11:4: “If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done.” (That’s the New Living Translation: in other translations, it’s “He who observes the wind will not sow,/ and he who regards the clouds will not reap.”) 

I keep these note cards in front of my face because they directly address a problem I know I have a tendency to fall into. Far too often, I’ll not write simply because I don’t “feel like it” or am not “in the mood.” The truth is, more often than not we must actively create a situation or “mood” in which we get work done. This is why my New Year’s resolution was to just look at my own writing for five minutes each day. Sometimes this helps me get started writing, sometimes it doesn’t–but it definitely gets me writing more than I would otherwise.

Another thing that’s been helping me ease back into a self-motivated writing routine: reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. This book is really wonderful, full of snarky wit and writing advice, and reading about other people’s struggles and success with the writing process helps you to realize your own pitfalls, strengths, and needs.

So, what are some of your methods for dealing with burnout–those days (or weeks) when you seem to have no creative energy left in your fingertips?