what I learned in grad school

Well, there are many things, actually, but the better title for this post might be, how grad school has changed the way I write. I came to grad school, I thought, to improve my writing. I had done all I could on my own, and I was ready for some assistance in moving what I wrote to the next level. I had no idea what “the next level” might mean, but I knew that it was someplace I wanted to get to.

Whether my writing in terms of the wording and language has actually improved is probably up for some debate. But irregardless, there have been other benefits: The next level, I now realize, was being able to write and structure a full-length essay. By full-length I mean more than five pages, which was about my record before. I now regularly turn out 15-20 page pieces, often in a week or less, and I feel like I am really getting the hang of structuring them. Which is cool. I’m also writing a book, and though I have no clue how that will eventually turn out, I feel like I now have some tools to use to structure and develop a book-length manuscript. I do not feel so intimidated by big writing projects, and I know what kind of inner motivation it will take to get through one.

But the best thing I have gotten out of grad school, weirdly, is something that I wasn’t taught. Well, not exactly. It’s a regular writing schedule. And an awareness of my writing habits. Every semester my professor asks everyone in the class to talk about their writing habits. My answer has changed for the better, I think every semester. The first time I heard him talk about this, and the first time I had to talk about my own habits, I realized I had no schedule and I had poor, unproductive habits. I didn’t write for three hours a day, every day. I didn’t have a per-day page minimum. I wrote either a) when I had a deadline, or b) when inspiration struck.

After that first session about writing habits, I made some changes. I told myself I’d write every morning. I found that a time limit wasn’t necessarily good, because time wasn’t always the difference between writing a lot or a little. I started to get into the habit of writing, if not every morning, then frequently. But I would still blow off writing if I had another assignment due, say, or if Billy and I decided to go out for breakfast. Or if I didn’t feel like it. Or…well, you get the idea.

By this year, I had started working harder and being less willing to blow off writing. But that meant that I had to adjust to writing at other times of the day. Face it, no one can guarantee that their mornings will always be free. So now: I write almost every day. I give myself one day off per week (sometimes two if things are really busy). I have learned to bend other aspects of my life to fit around writing, not the other way around. I have, though I am not super strict about it, a two-page per-day minimum. I have found since I started doing that that my daily page counts have actually increased, sometimes to three or four pages a day.
Writing is definitely now a habit rather than an occasional hobby. I feel weird when I don’t get to do a certain amount of writing a day. Sometimes I even get cranky, just like I do when I don’t get to the gym. And, I’ve become more aware of myself as a writer. I know that I can’t just get up every day and work on my book… I need to have time to think about what to write next before the actual time in front of the computer. Material needs time to percolate. I’ve started going over the book in my head before I go to sleep. It takes me forever to fall asleep anyway, and this is just a more productive use of that semi-alert time. Then, the next time I sit down to write, I know where to begin. I’ve also come to realize that I need a certain amount of what I think of as clearing out my head. That is, writing about whatever comes to mind rather than always writing something for the book. It’s kind of like my brain is a car muffler and I need to take it out on the highway to clear out all the gunk. I actually use this blog for that a lot of the time. I have been thinking of quitting the blog when I finish with school, since it was meant to record the whole Boston/SF grad school experience. But for the moment I feel like I need the blog to get out the random daily thoughts in order to better write other stuff. So it is now serving a much different purpose than I ever expected it to.

One thing I like about my professor asking the class to describe their writing habits is that I get to hear how other people work. One guy in my class last night said he used to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, get a big cup of coffee and go out for a long walk. Then he’d come back and write. One guy said he buys a pack of cigarettes and a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke and sits down and writes for an entire weekend, then he doesn’t do it again for weeks. One woman said she has to write queries or publishable columns every day so that she feels like shes on her way to becoming a working writer. After that she said she can work on her essays. Some people said they write in the middle of the night, which if I would do if I could. It’s quiet and no one would ever bother you. Aside from the fact that I am not a night person, its not sustainable, since most jobs require your presence in the daytime. One woman in my class is chronically ill, so she said she only writes when she has the energy, and when she does she writes as much as she can. My professor always tells the story of a former MFA student who contracted ALS and ended up, in the last months of her life, writing on a computer by using only her eye movements. She wrote seven hours a week. That story always shames everyone.


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