To call myself a writer would be a gross overstatement. I’m unpublished, and more importantly, I simply haven’t written something worth publishing yet. But one reason for my inexperience stems from a profound misconception that I allowed to overwhelm my better judgement for three years at this university. With that in mind, I would like to try to spare my peers the same trouble.
The first thing, that aforementioned misconception, is this: Stop denying that you love writing. I picked up my first book at an age so young I can’t actually recall doing so, and I have read voraciously ever since. No other art form captivates me quite like the written word. I have always known this, and I think that every other writer here does, too, if they have the courage to admit it.
Fall quarter freshman year, I took four classes: IHUM, Math 51, Econ 102A, in which I pulled straight B minuses, and a lyric poetry class taught entirely in Spanish, where I managed an A. Glancing back at that quarter’s transcript, I have to laugh at what it should have showed me: the blatant conclusion that I should have studied writing instead. Yet I still became an engineering major, and I’m about to start an engineering Master’s program.
My second point leads partly from the first, and it is twofold: Don’t cry over untaken courses or unmet people. Our lives are nothing but opportunities missed because we chose something else. It is never too late. There’s a curious fascination with fixed destinations among the graduating classes each Spring, and I think it’s because we want to cling to the comfort of a stable life when any adult will guffaw and tell you that you won’t have one.
These days, I’m grateful for the nineteen-year-old incarnation of myself that went into engineering for the money. I refuse to find myself at the kind of engineering firms that would cash in that freshman’s investment, but a few years doing earthquake engineering in Nepal, I think, will lend me much more interesting stories to write than if I had earned an English degree and woke up one day realizing I worked in advertising at Google. I believe that the roundabout path to author is the path for me, because in all likelihood, I will change jobs multiple times during my lifetime. Why not recognize the beauty of unanticipated opportunities?
Those opportunities, though, will always remain unfulfilled if you do not make the sacrifices necessary to pursue them. Stanford is like playing a game with golden dodgeballs. Labs, alumni, companies, faculty are incessantly throwing incredible opportunities at you; hell, you’re even making some for yourself. If you give in to the temptation to catch ‘em all, you will drop every single one.
In fact, you have to actively dodge the ones that you don’t have time to catch. For much of last year, I was intimately involved in running an engineering project which consistently provides its leaders with excellent opportunities for career advancement. Come September, though, after working on it every day for nearly a year, I stopped entirely. I had to make that sacrifice for the sake of my writing. If I would not, as I have this year, written every other day, then I would have been denying that writing, like any other profession, is something that you must consistently work at.
That’s another thing. Creative professions, and the wonderful catharsis of inspired creative expression, mislead us to believe that you can only create art when the mood strikes. Wrong. Exhausted at two in the morning last weekend, I sat down and hammered out some of the best dialogue that I have ever written. You won’t ever write good pieces by waiting until you fancy composing them, because even our best ideas take careful editing just to be good enough to strike a chord with other people. Whimsy alone is not enough to pen a novel. It takes mechanics, and heavy, heavy editing. An excellent place to start, one which I can clearly recommend, would be writing a column for this paper. The pressure of a weekly deadline forces you to spend at least four or five hours each week brainstorming and writing something worth the ink on the page or the bits on the hard disk.
Writing is a profoundly selfless exercise, because language is ultimately a tool for communication. I relish the flaws of this university, in particular its undergraduate culture, because they present opportunities like tee-balls to swing into home-run pieces. As I mentioned before, though, that ball will stay on the tee if you don’t step up to the plate.
That is an untenable legacy to leave behind. Homogeneous ideologies on this campus can be like the game Go, where pieces of one type surround those of the opposite type until they get to actually remove them from the board entirely. Writers, it is your job to ferret out those disempowered voices, sometimes silenced so that they are only implied as the opposite of the hegemonic dialectics in your communities, and speak for them. You have to play a clever game just to make yourself heard, and even then, expect that your enemies, “those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box” (via the old Stegner fellow Edward Abbey), will never stop fighting to throttle you as well.
Here’s my challenge for the week: writers, write. Drop your homework, pick up the pen, and tell a story. Recount your friends’ joy and their anguish, research workers’ rights at Stanford hospital or pen a poem testifying to the beauty of the oak groves on your weekend hike.
…then, send your work to Taylor at email@example.com. He’d love to read it.