How to Become (and Stay) a Creative Writing Major
You decide you like to write in elementary school. When your peers are outside partaking in the joys of recess, you are inside furiously and clumsily typing the opening lines to a book that you will never finish. On the kid’s computer in the basement there are twenty or so files preserving your different attempts at novels (short stories won’t exist for you until much later). One day in high school you will go through these forgotten files and feel slightly impressed—you had written a lot—but also slightly embarrassed because it’s all pretty shitty anyway.
But for now, in middle school, you resent your mother because she’s told you to try out for the school writing team. School writing team, you think, shaking your head. Who wants to be on a school writing team? You’re at school and you just left try-outs and you think you did well, but who really cares? You feel vaguely self-conscious, walking down the empty school hallway late to track practice. You suck at track, but at least it’s not the writing team.
The next day you’re uncomfortable when the kids you tried out with come up to you in that nervous, middle-schooler way and describe to you, word for word, the plots and characters they wrote about the day before. Partway in you realize they’re feeling you out. You see something in their eyes you think means they’re sizing you up, and so you strain to remember what you wrote about—something about a tree?—though pride prevents you from worrying too much. You’re still not sure you want to be on the team, but listening to them, you’re not even sure if you’ll make it in the first place.
You secure a spot on the school writing team and decide you better show up. The first day you sit in the practice room and it’s filled with some girls you know and some you don’t. It’s all girls though, and they seem nervous and mainly undecided about how outwardly proud they should seem regarding their individual writing competency. The beginning of pretentiousness is in the air. You sit next to a girl who is chewing her after-school snack with her mouth open and it really pisses you off . You think, why am I here? You are unimpressed with this writing team, but you are also nervous. When the teacher puts a prompt on the board and sets the timer to write, you sit up straight for the first time all day and wipe the sweat of your hands on your jeans. Everyone’s already got their heads down, scribbling away. They all are in positions they’ve figured out are comfortable several months beforehand because they have all identified as writers for a long time whereas you have only just begun, if at all. But you got the underdog thing working for you. You write your story and it’s fine. When it comes time to share, you think some of the other stories are just weird. You don’t say that, though. Instead you smile and nod when the girl next to you explains, in full detail with a sandwich in her mouth, how exactly Annie the Dog finds her way home.
Despite initial hesitations you make friends on the school writing team. Some of them you respect a lot. Admire even. There’s one girl who knows a lot about Greek mythology. She is particularly endearing in how she reads her stories to the group. She is one of your favorites. Some months pass and you begin to feel like you belong on the team. You feel comfortable in the middle of the pack. People make jokes with you. Some assume slightly authoritative airs, but that’s okay. It’s only natural, and you humbly accept all advice and genuinely mull it over. You go home after practice and feel happy. You have a buzz going. Middle school has suddenly become interesting, and the school writing team has turned out to be much better than track, which you are still in, despite only winning a second-heat race once.
You go to the district-level competition with your team. There are three sessions of writing—three stories in ninety minutes—and you’re basically sure you’re going to die. The teachers in the room of the hosting middle school are nice. You like how it feels before a teacher writes the prompt up on the board. You like the urgency of having only twenty minutes left, how it prompts your hand to write the details while your subconscious takes care of the theme. You surprise yourself both by writing well-constructed and logically sound stories each time, and by how fast you write. You ask for more paper several times. Your hand hurts after a while and you feel sweaty in weird places. Sitting in the waiting room with your team while the judges score all the stories is fun. They are drinking juice boxes, and everyone looks overwhelmed from their creative exertions. The room is loud and full of teams from other schools, but they are not as good as yours. You will not find that out for another hour or so. But right now, you are all quiet and eating granola bars. Some of you are reading.
It is time for the award ceremony. You and your team have seats on the ground, close to the front. There is a keynote speaker. You don’t know what “keynote” means, but the person talks a lot about the history of the hosting middle school, which you don’t really care about. You feel nervous, and are experiencing dread. Your team is chatting now. They are all half-sure their names will be called. This is called hope, and it is perfectly fine in competitive environments. You aren’t comfortable with hope, however, so you let yourself sink into dull apprehension. Your mother and sister are in the bleachers all the way at the top.
One of the nice teachers starts to read off the names of the placing students, beginning at the bottom and working up. Each time, in the silence before a name, your heart bungee jumps to your stomach. You cannot decide if this is excitement or fear. Anyway, you feel a little sick. And then you feel disappointment because they are reading the name for third place now, and there is no longer any chance you placed. If you had, it would have been much lower. The girl who knows a lot about Greek mythology placed 7th, and your team had gone crazy. You are pretty sure that was the only celebration your team can hope for. You tune out for the rest of the name-
The announcer calls the name for first place. You clap. You are sitting at the end of the row, all of your team to the right of you. They are all looking down the row. They are all smiling and saying loud things, trying to get you to do something, but you cannot hear them. You start clapping harder and look to your left to off er your congratulations. You have begun to clap very enthusiastically when you see your teacher laughing and clapping at you. The Greek mythology girl tells you to stand up and get the trophy. You do, but you are confused. Your heart is pounding and you start to grin. People are laughing and cheering around you. And then you get it; you understand that for some reason your name had been called. You don’t feel like you deserve it, like you didn’t work hard enough to earn this trophy the size of your torso. But you feel like Anne Hathaway in the Princess Diaries, and your teammates are beaming. Your middle school placed first, largely due to you and the Greek mythology girl. Your mother runs up to you and said she was screaming from the back. She said she knew you’d place because you simply had to.
The following Monday at school, the morning announcements mention the team and, more importantly, your personal success. You sort of want to smile, but you also want to sink into your seat. You are sitting in a science class with a lot of classmates who are not really your friends and you wonder what they are thinking. Then the boy you fancy yourself in love with and who would later become the star of the high school football team offers you a toothy smile and patronizingly says, “That’s you!” He is turned in his seat, appraising you, and the gaze of the class is upon you. Before you can stammer a response, the teacher walks in and everyone turns away. You realize with the instincts of a middle-schooler that you have been branded, possibly for life. Instead of shame, you begin to develop confidence.
The first writing practice after the competition is strange. You are treated as a hero by some, but some other girls don’t know how to act around you. They never thought you were any good in the first place. For this reason you’re a little uncomfortable. You don’t know how you managed to place first, so you tip-toe through the next hour, secretly hoping you are massively talented while also begging God that you won’t draw any more attention to yourself.
You get to high school and no one knows what to make of you. Hell, you don’t know what to make of you. You are on the cheerleading team now, principally because you wanted to see if you could make it, and you did. (High school track is for people who can do more than a brisk jog.)You are also very vocal in your Honors English class. During a group discussion about the Lord of the Flies, you are the first student to make a comment that exceeds expectations, which your teacher explicitly tells the class once you finish making it by saying, “See, that’s what we’re looking for.” Of course you do not smile because you don’t want to seem arrogant or anything like that. But you love this. You love books and talking about themes and using textual evidence as support. Everyone else hates this, but you love this. You do not tell people you love it, but you do help everyone else do their homework. You are fantastic at finding quotes and explaining their significance. You wonder if this is your super power in life. It is a lame super power, but you could totally dig it.
Writing becomes your thing, just like you wanted it to be. You become the editor of the high school newsmagazine. You have a column called Let’s Get Real. This column is your child, and you write a piece on feminism that you later disagree with, but it gains attention from people who had never heard of the magazine. You don’t like journalism that much, but you enjoy the duties of being the editor. And you’re a second mom to all of the class, anyway. You develop a steady affection for the Oxford comma, despite your journalistic roots.
Your long-time boyfriend breaks up with you. It is devastating not because he was The One, but because you should have broken up with him and never got around to it. You did love him in a certain way though, and it takes all of the summer before senior year for you to get over him. You use this time to write really shitty poems. Later, you contemplate destroying them. You do not.
You learn about sonnets in AP Lit. You understand the formula and want to try it out for yourself. You have been called a wordsmith a handful of times, so you reason that sonnets cannot be too hard. They are very hard. You write three and edit them a million times. They eventually end up decent, you think. You give one to your friend who has recently been dumped as well. It is your least favorite, but you give it to her anyway.
From sonnets you go on to free-verse. You think, I like this shit. And you really do. You have a good feel for words. Maybe nothing special, but a good feel is a good feel and certainly something to work with. You decide you are going to major in creative writing in college. Your father will be concerned. You fire off a comprehensive email about freedom and necessary self-expression, etc., etc. You review the email and decide you could maybe be a lawyer, but of course you don’t send it. At dinner one night you and your father talk about the problem of you being a creative writing major. The eloquence you so masterfully summoned in that email disappears and you end up picking apart the burger on your plate for several minutes while your father makes very rational points about the disadvantages of pursuing a liberal arts degree.
You decide a creative writing major is much less scary if you tell people you will eventually be pursuing a law degree. You accordingly tell everyone who asks that you’re going to be a lawyer, and you stop eating meat. You’re really only kind of sure about the law thing, but you have not had a burger since.
Then you go to college. With you, you bring ten books. You bring exactly ten books because you have asked multiple book-lovers what was a reasonable amount of books to bring and the average was around ten. You are pretty sure you will not have time to read these books but they act as a security blanket. It is nice to see them on top of your desk when you are doing homework for classes that are beyond your skillset and unattractive to your refined sensibilities. You engage in some conversations about literature and realize you are not very well read. You begin to vaguely wonder if these people who have read more than you even have lives, but then you notice reading can’t be a discriminating factor, since you don’t have much a life either.
You receive your first real writing assignment for your Intro to Creative Writing class and this is what happens: You stare at the screen. You have an existential crisis. You actually procrastinate by reading the book assigned for your existential philosophy class. You stare again at the screen and seriously contemplate writing a satirical short story about an encounter with bigfoot. The story has literally no value or integrity, but you reason that masking the mediocre content with flowery language could earn a decent grade. It would be loosely modeled on something you wrote back in middle school for fun. For the next few days you tell anyone who asks how you’re doing that you’re writing a story about bigfoot, and then ask if that answers their question and force yourself to laugh. You have not started the bigfoot story. You do start at some point, and the prose isn’t bad, but then you start to hate yourself because you are writing a story about fucking bigfoot. You can’t just write another depressing story because earlier that week you decided you never would again because writing them is like draining your own blood and you don’t want your classmates thinking you are chemically imbalanced. Feel moody and cheap for not being able to write a happy story. You will not be able to write about anything happy, even though you’ve lived a relatively happy life, because happy things don’t make for good stories. You stare at the screen some more and wonder if you can’t be a creative writing major because writing is such a selfish act really, like looking in a mirror and painstakingly describing yourself, and that bothers you.
You spend the evening, instead of writing, sifting through everything you’ve ever written. Some of it is good and means something to you. You find a poem or two that you have forgotten about but actually make you feel. You recently learned about happiness and satisfaction (in the academic sense) through your Educational Developmental Psychology class, and, spinning in your spinny chair, you have come to the conclusion that you are not a satisfied individual. This is probably because you believe every possible career in your skillset will make you poor, or maybe because you haven’t seen your family in a while. You spend a day or two talking about becoming a History major, which seems somewhat more reasonable for a pre-law student. Most of your friends support this except for one girl who, in middle school, sent you a copy of a book she had written to read and look over. That was how you two met.
The night before the deadline you pull up an old story and examine it. You like the prose but the contents are too honest and you’d rather continue writing about bigfoot. But you start playing with dialogue anyway because, unlike bigfoot, this one means something to you. So you slave over it. You see yourself in it. You lean back when you’re finished and think the fiction is truer than what actually happened to you. You are also smiling slightly as you continue to scroll up and down the screen, reviewing what you have accomplished.
You think of yourself as caught somewhere between an F. Scott Fitzgerald and Stephanie Meyer, and you’re okay with that. You realize you chose to be a writer a really long time ago, and that the determining damage is done. It’s difficult to regret it, though, because when you look at that screen once more you see a story that’s more you than the girl in your chair. You like how you can feel its steady, pounding heartbeat, the way it conveys a sturdy emotion. You’re proud of how, through little squiggles of black, you’ve done something real. This is the small magic you have been given, the screen says, white in the darkness of a nighttime dorm room. Take it and run.