Sunday, October 16, 2011

College and its Effects on Writing, Part 1

So, I was sitting in a coffee shop in St. Charles, MO yesterday and thinking about an ongoing debate I had been having with a former friend who lives there. The debate was whether or not it's necessary to attend college in order to be a professional writer. Now, obviously, it's not necessary. There are many and more writers who have been successful without attending college, but it's still a discussion that does and will continue to happen.

Phrased a different way: what's the point of going to college if you want to be a writer?

It's a question I asked myself before deciding to attend University, and it's a question I've asked myself several time while I've been here. Now that I'm approaching graduation (on time!), I figure I should be able to take a moment and reflect on this question again.

Really, this comes down to two considerations: networking and the learning process.

I'm going to start with the latter.

I don't know if this is true for others, but it definitely applies to me. I don't realize I've learned something until two or three months after I've learned it. Whether it's English grammar, public speaking, Shakespearean gender politics, or character development, I can sit in a classroom studying (either laboriously or frantically, depending on the topic and the proximity of a test) while thinking that it's all just coming in one ear and going out the other for weeks on end. I can feel as lost as Goldilocks for an entire semester (somehow still managing to secure good grades).

But then, once the class is done, I'll find myself seeing the world in a new way. I'll be watching a modern romantic comedy and find myself thinking, "Oh, yeah, that's tying into the Elizabethan dramatic technique of making male villains overly effeminate in order to draw comedic derision; how cliche." And stuff like that.

The point is, the things I learn in class become slowly engrained within my mind in such a way that I don't usually notice it happening until I find it cropping up in my everyday interactions with the world.

This includes writing.

Writing is so very much a subconscious activity when its done well. When a writer is free and honest enough to let himself show through on the page, it leads to the raw, emotional experience that really affects the reader. Its frightening and dangerous, but it's in that vulnerability that some of the best art is created.

Even when we plan out our writing, we have to allow for some subconscious exploration and expression. Otherwise, the writing comes across as artificial and one-dimensional (because it usually is). Dean Wesley Smith talks about this at length in one of his blog posts, but he's not the only one. Brandon Sanderson, one of the greatest outliners of today, has talked about how he has to grow his characters organically -- exploring who they are and discovering who he needs to cast in the various roles as he writers through his outline. I'm pretty sure Stephen King talks about this in his book, but I can't quote a specific passage at you right now.

Now, to bring it all together.

If, as I have mentioned above, the things I learn become ingrained in my subconscious over time and, as I have also mentioned, writing draws upon the subconscious for its fullest expression, then it is important that my subconscious not grow stagnant.

There are a multitude of other ways I could say this. It's important for me to stretch myself, to consider other viewpoints, to challenge my way of thinking, to not fall into a rut, etc. The important point is this: it's not enough for me to consciously consider the thoughts of others when I'm writing a book; I have to internalize the ideas to such a degree that it can come out through my subconscious in my writing. Otherwise, it's just going to feel forced.

College has served to consistently and continually challenge my thoughts, ideas, and expectations. I honestly believe that this has made me a better writer. And while I admit there are other ways to challenge yourself (I certainly hope so, at least, or else it's going to be a dull sixty years), being forced to face contrary ideas has helped me to grow as a person much faster and more dynamically than I ever could have achieved on my own in a similar space of time.

What's more, I feel college has better prepared me to continue challenging my expectations and seeking out alternatives to the "expected" or "automatic" answers that I might have given three or four years ago. Do I think it's the only thing responsible for teaching me this? No. But it has been one of the big ones.

Okay, I think I've exhausted this topic for the time being. I could go on, as always. But I think I should stop for now.

How about you? Any thoughts or comments on writing in college? Leave them below.

Tomorrow (?) I'll talk about the networking side of this discussion.

Until then...
-josh k.

UPDATE! (27 October 2011)

As you know, this is part one of a two-part blog. For part two, go here.

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