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How My Creative Writing Degree Has Served Me Well—an essay
Holding that expensive piece of paper up to a different light.
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Where we’ve been
Through a recent three-part series (here’s Part I, and Part II, and Part III), I examined the ways in which my creative writing degree from Grand Valley State University (GVSU) has fallen short in the 10+ years since earning it. Because it really has. I don’t want to spend any more time driving that point home, however, so if interested, please do check it out.
What I do want to spend time on is giving that same creative writing degree something of a fair shake. Because while it’s true that that degree has created, or deepened, gaps in professional pursuits, it’s also true that in some areas that degree has served me well.
Confidence, warranted and unwarranted
By the time I’d graduated from GVSU, I’d had four semester-long workshops (two for fiction, two for creative nonfiction), which included two instances apiece where 15-25 students would read a submission of mine and not only discuss it in class, but return those submissions to me with marginal notes & end-of-manuscript write-ups. I’d then take my notes from the discussion, and all of those marked-up manuscripts (hundreds of pages), and rework those submissions for inclusion in my end-of-semester portfolio that served as the course “final”—a portfolio submitted just to the professor. Said portfolio would include about an hour-long one-on-one review with the professor during office hours and, of course, your submissions once again returned with notes and suggestions for further revision.
In other words, throughout a semester-long workshop there were several touchpoints wherein you received feedback on your work. And while it’s of course possible that those 20-30 students and your professor(s) dislike your work enough to the point that they will passionately beat you and your work down in the notes, that isn’t a scenario I encountered. Yes, there were some students in each workshop who weren’t the biggest fans of my work. But largely, my classmates seemed to see enough in my submissions to talk about them, and me as a writer, productively and positively, and the same was true for my professors—there were suggestions for improvement, no doubt, but generally a lot of positivity in the margins, at the end of the manuscript, and in one-on-one meetings. Not just generic words of encouragement, either; people were engaging with my work, and with me.
The perfectionist and people-pleasing sides of me had huge, huge appetites back then (they still do on occasion, I’ll be honest), so I thought it was great. I loved it, racing back to my apartment with all of those manuscripts and pouring over what everyone had marked and/or written. I mean, talk about handsome, nourishing meals; I’d created something out of thin air–something that was more me than I even knew—and people liked it.
I’d never been fed in such ways. And rather than dread my turn in workshops, or dread my portfolio submission and review, I looked forward to the opportunity. I craved it. And while I think that many people would expect that it was due more to the idea of, “I’m eager to get better as a writer,” I think it had a lot more to do with needing to be told that I was a good writer, that I had “the goods,” that I was in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people.
Nobody told me these things verbatim. But in my mind that’s what was being said.
So what grew quickly from this process—too quickly, I admit, in some cases–was the confidence I had in myself as a writer. Some of this, I’d argue, was warranted. I was working my ass off. I was going to school for writing, yes, full-time, but I was devouring books in addition to what was on the syllabi. I was writing stories that wouldn’t be submitted to the class, or as part of my portfolio. Essays. Screenplays. Etc. I didn’t have much of a social life then because I really didn’t want one. I’d fallen in love with writing, and my laptop, notebooks and novels were the only things I’d want to spend time with. On weekends, I’d drive the 75 miles home to my parents’ house, where compared to campus life it was silent, and more or less hole up in my childhood bedroom and write all weekend.
So when I talk about loving feedback from the workshop setting, it wasn’t a sort of thing where I’d write a few paragraphs, submit it, be showered with love, and bada-bing-bada-boom, I get to crown myself as an amazing writer. No. But it definitely helped convince me that I had something.
Which, when paired with the lack of general wisdom of a 21-year-old, created some moments I wish I could have back.
One such moment: by my junior year, I had the audacity to submit some of the short stories that had just been workshopped to publications like The Paris Review and The New Yorker, and then also had the audacity to not feel sad necessarily upon rejection, but pissed, and convinced that they “just didn’t get it”. Like I knew more than they did. Like I’d earned something and they were being dicks and withholding it from me.
Another moment: also in my junior year, I self-published two books, justifying the decision to do so as it being my “summer job”. I passed out copies to fellow students, even to professors. I was proud. And I really shouldn’t have been. I cringe now thinking of how ugly those covers were, the terrible quality of those pages.
If you, dear reader, received a copy of one of these books: I’m sorry. But thank you for not telling me that it sucked.
And I guess that’s ultimately my point: even if it created some regrettable moments, even if it led to some things I’d 10+ years from then consider mistakes, the fact that nobody told me that I sucked—and instead told me the opposite—made it so that I believed in myself and in my ability. Which is important for anyone, but absolutely critical for anyone pursuing the arts. Without confidence—be it in yourself, or in your work (how large of a gap is there between the two?)—there’s no way you’ll survive the rejections, the lulls, or even the highs.
I’m sure some of my confidence does stem from the fact that, when pressed, I can point to the degree itself and say, “No, look, there is an institution that has awarded me a degree saying that I studied this subject to the point of some level of mastery.” But I don’t think that has nearly as much to do with it as the consistent feedback received throughout the courses/workshops, and how positive that feedback was.
The 15-25 people per workshop, the professors—it was a village. Was this village representative of the reading/writing industry at large? Absolutely not. Writing for the same 15-25+ people over and over again cannot mimic what it is to write for strangers. But it was this village that raised me as a writer, and their care for and consideration of me then continues to make an impact.
Because the same confidence that led me to submit terrible stories to prestigious literary journals is the same confidence that led me to co-found Squalorly right out of college. It’s the same confidence that led me to submit And in the Dark They Are Born (née Wounded Tongue) and Strays Like Us to agents for representation. It’s the same confidence that hasn’t let me give up on those projects even when hitting obstacles. It’s the same confidence that led to me founding Orson’s Publishing and Orson’s Review. And it’s the same confidence that led to me starting this newsletter.
I’m very skilled at giving and receiving feedback
I remember my advanced creative nonfiction workshop was a night class, and in the first minutes of the first night, the professor—with whom I to this day converse—talked about his expectations of us, and how we were to conduct ourselves in workshop.
It won’t be word for word, but he essentially said this:
The workshop is a sacred place. Because it is a place we must keep safe in order for intimate truths to be shared and realized–the essence of creative nonfiction—destructive bullshit is to be left at the door. Judgment. Bullying. Snickers and snides.
All feedback given is to improve the work, because all feedback given is about the work, and not about the individual—even if the narrator of the essay is you, it is not the you that sits before us. There is a clear and distinct separation between the two.
If you cannot be a respectful member of this sacred place, then you should get the fuck out.
Okay, so he definitely didn’t say, “you should get the fuck out,” in that last one. That’s my wording. But that was the tone I remember. And, it was jarring to some. By that point in GVSU’s creative writing courses, I’d observed and interacted with several students who held what I felt was a very romantic relationship with writing, and who generally held a viewpoint that the less structure that was involved, the better. It’d be too far to say that they felt deadlines didn’t “work for them,” but it was something adjacent to that. Writing wasn’t a practice; it was something that just “struck” whenever it felt like it. Assignments and deadlines were rebelled against, muttered about. Put off. Extended. Etc.
For me, it wasn’t that that approach was wrong, or that the end result wasn’t good. Because the end result often was good. And the professors—fellow writers, I’ll remind you, with their own projects and artistic processes—were well aware of the fact that everyone has their very own process, that works with them, for them and what they’re trying to say with their work.
Who were they to say, really, that a student couldn’t take the route that worked for them? Other than the requirements of the creative writing program and of the university, there wasn’t much ground to stand on.
Which I think is why this professor’s introduction to the advanced class was so memorable. Maybe it wasn’t a one-eighty from what had been the norm, but let’s call it a one-twenty. A clearly delivered—verbally, mind you, and not via a syllabus—set of guidelines. Structure. Boundaries. And even if there were some students who in that moment felt a sense of panic, or disdain, my read on it was that by week three or four my entire workshop had bought in. And by the end of the fifteen or sixteen weeks, despite meeting just once per week I felt very close to everyone in that class. I’m very, very hesitant to toss out, “we were a family,” or anything like that, but I’d participated in four or five different workshops by that point and I had yet to feel the way I did then. There was a lot of positivity. A lot of productivity. A lot of respect.
To be fair, I’m not shocked that I responded well to that structure. I’m the son of a former marine (who also happens to be a retired police officer, and who also happens to farm) and a former county clerk who’s one hell of a bookkeeper. I also was a high school athlete, which feels slightly embarrassing to toss out here (I was no state champ, for example, nor would I take my athletic abilities to some university), but also relevant. I loved sports and took them very seriously. I trained independently. I studied the styles and tendencies of others independently, etc. In other words, leading up to college, there was a lot of structure in my life. I was very familiar with discipline—from teachers, sure, but from parents as well, and from coaches, and from the self—and with being held accountable.
So yeah, I really jelled with this particular professor’s approach. And what I learned in that workshop about giving and receiving feedback are things that I have carried with me into nearly every interaction at my day jobs since. And not only that, but into my personal relationships as well.
The thing is that it becomes apparent very quickly that not everybody has had the same treatment. Or, any treatment, really. Zero experience in a setting where you’re receiving feedback, where something you’ve created has been critiqued. No, get outside of the workshop setting and it’s messy. Sometimes despite best intentions, the delivery of feedback is cold and tactless. Notes and suggestions are confusing and seemingly lead to questions the deliverer doesn’t want to spend any more time answering.
And, people who haven’t had any practice separating themselves from that which they have produced struggle mightily in receiving feedback as well. They’ll defend every word, every piece of punctuation, every gesture. They amplify nuggets of feedback into full-out attacks, on them and on their character. They build and maintain grudges.
Giving and receiving feedback in healthy and productive ways isn’t hard, but it also isn’t easy. I’ve been fortunate in that the majority of my day jobs since graduating from GVSU have given me a lot of opportunities to continue training the feedback muscles I possess. Today, as a content designer in a tech/semi-corporate setting, I work collaboratively across teams daily and I receive a lot of praise and gratitude for the strength of the feedback I give. Which, honestly, I think comes down to two things:
I create an environment of trust. And I do that by spending time getting to know the people with whom I’ll be exchanging feedback on both a personal and a professional level. By that I don’t mean that I have a templated set of questions I ask, but I do want to understand as much as I can what makes them tick professionally, and what it is they’re striving for in their role(s). Because then I’ll have a better understanding of how they’re approaching a task, or a project; I’ll see more clearly how it is they need something to come together in order to achieve their goals. And on a personal level… am I trying to be best friends with everyone I work with? No, of course not. But I do care about them, and I want them to know that. I care about their families. I care about their passions. I value them, their time, and their attention. By communicating that, and by demonstrating that time and time again, what I hope is understood is that the lines of communication are wide open. Have a question about something that seems tiny? Ask it anyway. It could be huge. Want to change a meeting time because you have to pick your kiddo up from daycare this week? Great, let’s do it; anything I can do to help ensure that the work You and the personal You is happy and healthy.
I personalize every bit of feedback I can. And I don’t just mean I make sure to toss someone’s name in front of what I’m about to send along. No, I mean that, because I get to know who it is I’m working with, and I start to understand their tendencies and preferences, I am constantly tailoring my delivery of feedback to ensure that what I’m saying is clear and that it is actionable. For some people, this means a face-to-face interaction. For others, it’s a real-time conversation on Slack. For others yet, it’s an email where everything is listed out and they have time to read, digest & respond. Everyone is different, and I do everything I can to accommodate those differences; I try to learn their feedback language, if you will. Which might sound like a large investment of time. And sometimes it can be. But it’s worth it, I think, differentiating feedback. Because what good is feedback at all if it can’t be understood?
It is of course up to you to decide whether or not my approach is one to appreciate or to adopt. But I love the fact that coworkers and fellow writers feel comfortable coming to me, that they know that they can rely on me to see their work and to treat it with the care and consideration it deserves.
Sure, it’s possible that without my time at GVSU I could’ve wound up with the same philosophy, with the same process. But I think the odds would’ve been very, very slim.
A community, albeit a very small one
I point this out in Where My Creative Writing Degree Has Fallen Short, Part III, but to briefly reiterate: I estimate that over the course of my time at GVSU, I interacted with around 100 fellow writing students. I took nine semesters of courses at GVSU; each writing course had 15-25 students. So, despite there being plenty of familiar faces from course to course, I feel like this is a pretty conservative estimate.
In that same post, I point out that, including myself, there are four GVSU writing students from that time that I know to still be pursuing writing (in terms of writing books and getting them published). Given that I am no social media butterfly, and that I am not “friends” with the majority of my fellow writing students from back then, this also seems like it could be a conservative estimate.
Even if it is, the truth for me is this: the writing community I have today is very, very small. And, the majority of that community is comprised of people met at GVSU. There are five people in particular that come to mind, with whom I converse with some regularity.
I think that number could’ve easily been higher, had I been better at letting friendships actually take root—something I still struggle with to this day. There were a lot of great people I remember from my time at GVSU. Great people with great ideas. While I do wish I would’ve kept in touch with more of them, having five in my corner is not nothing. No, no, because it’s actually everything.
You see, over the ten years since graduating from GVSU’s writing program, something I’ve learned is that it’s very, very difficult to cultivate and maintain relationships with writers outside of the structure a writing program can provide.
I’ve interacted with hundreds of writers in that span of time, in West Michigan and here in Seattle, through book clubs, through short-term workshops (anywhere from a few weeks to a few months), in an editorial capacity, etc. and almost none of them have stuck. I’m sure there are plenty of nuanced reasons as to why that is, but I tend to think that it has a lot to do with the idea that, without the aforementioned structure, we’re all just kind of floating around and crashing into one another. We can collide for a project. We can collide for a week. Or two, or three. But then we’re gone, back to our lives and onto the next collision, or lack thereof.
By comparison, a single university writing course lasts 15-16 weeks. And when a degree essentially locks you into at least 2.5 years of study, there is both time and space for the roots of those relationships to travel deeply. Even if you aren’t inseparable with one another, you have a shared experience. You ride the same roller coaster. You have the same shitty professor. You have the same amazing professor. You navigate the ups and downs alongside one another. Upon completion, you succeed—together.
Perhaps I’m being redundant in pointing it out, but it just isn’t easy to replicate that.
An uneven comparison
In the Where My Creative Writing Degree Has Fallen Short series (again, here’s Part I, and Part II, and Part III), I make it clear that there’s a definitive set of criteria to which I’m holding up my experience and where it has led me. Much of that criteria is quantitative. There are plenty of numbers involved, from the financial cost of the degree itself to the rankings of literary fiction on the bestsellers lists and more. Here, when examining the ways in which I feel my creative writing degree has served me well, you won’t find such numbers. That’s because I don’t have a way to accurately gauge how those positives have impacted my life in quantitative ways.
Has my ability of giving and receiving feedback helped me earn more money, for example? Perhaps. But if so, how much? I have no idea. It’s impossible to parse that out.
Has the confidence in myself led me to interview better for a certain position than someone who has lesser confidence? Again, perhaps. But I don’t really know.
Therefore, the comparison between the ways in which my degree has fallen short and the ways in which it has served me well is an uneven one. In a perfectly neat world, I could examine it on a single plane. I could create metrics out of the qualitative experiences I speak of and chart them somewhere. Analyze them. Weigh it all out.
But I can’t. Or rather, I won’t. I think it can just be a little messy.