During one workshop, a professor offered a little nugget. Someone had submitted a story about a girl who was studying abroad, a satire that I didn’t recognize as such, and the professor commented that a story about a student in college may not resonate because the stakes weren’t high enough. He argued that, for the most part, college is this cushy, safe space where kids can try things out, seek how they go, and try again.
Of course, we immediately railed against him. What about “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by ZZ Packer, we argued! Well, of course, there are exceptions to every maxim. Those exceptions are probably a large part of why some people dismiss MFA programs altogether. I grappled with his advice myself because I did not experience college as this kind of bouncy castle. Instead, I worked 40 hours a week to pay the tuition overage not covered by my federal loans. (Somehow, I had the wisdom to not take out a private loan, for which I am thankful to this day!) I was also still reeling from some teenage trauma that affected everything I did in college. I didn’t really make friends, I barely paid attention in class although I received straight A’s, I didn’t study abroad. College, to me, ended up being a piece of paper, an accumulation of credits that resulted in a document that meant I could make twelve dollars an hour instead of seven.
Long story long, college was tough. It wasn’t tough because college itself is tough, but it was tough because of the baggage I brought to the experience. So, I don’t think this professor was entirely right about his advice – there are stakes for some in college – but I understand his perspective. To write a story about someone in college, you really have to find the nuance that allows the conflict to matter.
We can look to the news to find ways that it can matter. A very widely discussed example is the Brock Turner case. *College* didn’t explicitly turn him into a registered sex offender, nor did *college* victimize the young woman he raped. But college, as a setting, provided a real, nuanced setting within which these two nuanced people converged and conflicted. I dare say they are both forever changed.
I’m thinking about this a bit now because I’m thinking of aspects of my life and my experience that I would consider weaving into a story or using to write a book. I think I’ve mentioned before that I used to feel conflicted about allowing my own life and experiences to influence my writing directly. But, I’ve let that go in writing my novel, in part because I read the incredible David Vann, whose work (or at least some of it) is taken a little bit from his real-life experiences. Other writers do it too! In writing The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, Vendela Vida was inspired by her backpack which was stolen in Morocco. Probably, most of us do it! The trick, I think, is to recognize the inspiration for what it is and then let the story’s path diverge when it needs to. (Thank you to a very wise agent, Brettne Bloom of The Book Group, who gave me that advice!)
In another post, I’ll talk about brainstorming my list of crazy stuff that’s happened to me (and not so crazy stuff, too) that could inspire my writing. I bring this up, though, because I go back to many formative, interesting experiences I had when I was college-aged, when the stakes felt pretty severe. I’m hoping one of those experiences will give me some direction on the next big writing project I plan to undertake, which will follow a young woman as she moves abroad for the year. The protagonist, as I envision her, will have quite a few naive beliefs about the place to which she is moving and the people who live there, and in being baptized in this new culture, she will come to learn how lethal her beliefs were, no matter that she shared them with most of her family and friends, people who still believe them. It will be a kind of coming-of-age story after she’s already come of age.
Cards on the table, I’ll admit that I work in international education at a university, so I am very interested in this topic. But, I have also witnessed the transformative power of a year spent meaningfully immersed in another culture. It doesn’t matter how similar or different the culture is. What does matter is the meaningfulness of the time spent.
I suppose the important thing about advice, in general, is that none of it should be universally accepted. Any piece of advice I hear, I always have to apply it to myself, what I know I am capable of, what I’m trying to accomplish. The noise of that advice, particularly advice that may be good but isn’t suited to a particular writer, has the power to stifle creativity and output. It’s a dangerous thing, to hear that advice and take it at face value. I could see it stopping me each time I sit down to write.
So instead, I take it as a caution sign. Be careful with this premise, he says; make sure your protagonist wants something and she will suffer if she doesn’t get it.
That’s advice I will make sure to take.