Widgets Magazine


Freshman fall and the case for cliché

The dangerous thing about growing up with literature is how easy it becomes to create a narrative for yourself. There are the stories that wound and the stories that you fall into slowly and the stories that jar, a foreign flesh, but I mostly want my life to be like the stories that turn out alright in the end. I’ve spent years subconsciously marking the events in my life as plot points toward some greater future, external conflicts as mostly resolvable. I want a Zooey for my Franny, I want to diminish loneliness with poetry. More than anything, I expect change: the maturation of my character arc, some kind of marked development as a reminder of where and who I’ve been.

I think I expected my biggest change yet in going to college, and I think this expectation is a common one, both as a realistic deduction and as a trope vaguely inhabited by Michael Cera. Before Thanksgiving break, friends told me they thought they had changed but didn’t know exactly how. We all felt a fear of returning to a home that no longer felt like home because the major academic and social changes of fall quarter may have left some irreversible, unrecognizable mark.

And while going home last week had its own sense of foreignness, I quickly felt myself seamlessly inhabiting the spaces I knew so well before Stanford. Though all of my high school friends had been leading entirely different lives than the ones we used to share, we all fell into our natural rhythm of conversation over visits to our favorite ice cream shop and Friendsgiving dinners. The great dramatic reunion of old life and new life turned out, perhaps for the better, not very dramatic at all.

As happy and relaxed and natural I felt at home, I also wondered what kinds of change I’d wanted hadn’t yet come to fruition. Of course I’m a different person now than I was when I left for Stanford, but even though the school year is still young, something seemed to be missing: a certain pressure to adapt to the intellectualism and professionalism and general ambition of the culture of the place I hadn’t yet grasped.

The newness of classes and faces seemed to require acclimation very quickly. By week three, I was reading ancient Greek philosophy and writing papers on classic poetry, Platonic forms, and French art. I felt the exhilaration of the rigor of my academics and the quiet brilliance of all my classmates, as if the vibrant intellectualism around me was something I could absorb like a lung.

Especially in classes also taken by upperclassmen, there’s this sense that we should all know what we’re doing, which is, in theory, not an unrealistic thing to ask. But I wonder about the narrowness of our margins of error. In many of my classes, we talk about the necessity of avoiding the cliché, the philosophy and literature we should be able to interpret as something of our own. And these assertions are certainly valid and essential to the work that we’ve been covering. Yet there are still the specifics that have yet to be addressed: In which spaces can I be maudlin, can I have no idea what to say?

I think freshman fall is as good a time as any for cliché. For staying up late with friends every night of the week, for being alone and lonely. For writing a paper that isn’t very good or innovative or even on topic. For feeling sentimental and not quite as smart as we should be.

There’s this essay I love called “How It Feels,” by Jenny Zhang, about emotional vulnerability and poetry and art that I often return to when I fear that I haven’t adapted as quickly as I should, that I’m writing in clichés that are emotional and unintellectual and unremarkable. “I think everyone wants to make something touchable, but most of us don’t out of fear of being laughable. I’m not saying I’m fearless,” Zhang writes. The change that I expected, this quasi-acclimation to intellectualism, still hasn’t arrived. Or is in the process of arriving. And as a result, I’ve been afraid of speaking up, of writing poetry and of owning my opinions, out of fear of being laughable.

I’m not fearless either, but I’m working on not feeling entirely afraid: of asking questions, of not knowing where to carve an academic niche. Just because we are urged to eschew cliché and banality and unoriginality doesn’t mean we should be ashamed to embody them anyway. We have so much time for niche, for intellectual objectivity, and for innovation and development. Change will come when it should, and I’ll be clueless, hopeful and ready for it.


Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.