Lessons From a Graduating English Major

Emily Catenzaro

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I’m graduating from college in less than four weeks – finally. After almost 6 years at UConn, I’m now facing my last days as an undergraduate. Like a lot of undergraduates in my position, in-between the moments of intense senioritis and burnout, I’m feeling nostalgic. For the most part, my days at UConn have been happy ones. I had a routine, shared feelings of camaraderie with my friends and fellow students, and access to a beautiful campus that is still one of my favorite places to wander around. Life has been pretty good.

Because I’m already nostalgic, I’m in a headspace to share some wisdom I’ve learned during my undergraduate career. Recently, I stumbled across a blog post from Colum McCann’s new book, Letters to a Young Writer. Since many of his feelings are similar to my own at this time, I thought that I would connect his experiences to my own.

How to deal with other people’s success

“A young writer must also read her contemporaries. Fiercely and jealously. She must get her blood boiling. Shit, that author comes from my hometown. How dare they say what I want to say? Yes, rage, but a temporary rage. Not in competition, but in desire.”

You’re going to watch people become successful, both in college and in life. Two big lessons I learned from my years in college and in competitive figure skating:

1) People will randomly stumble across success, while others will struggle over a lifetime for it.

2) Whether you do or don’t find success has very little to do with what kind of person you are.

Good things are going to happen to bad people, just as bad things are going to happen to good people. The best way I know how to combat feelings of jealousy or inadequacy is to refocus on your own journey. Everything is going to happen to you in its own time because your path is your own and no one has lived your life except for you. In the meantime, don’t fall into the trap of measuring your life by others’ success. Focus on your craft, because no one else can bring your unique traits to the table. I love McCann’s metaphor about Ikea chairs: “They are not taking your job: your job is entirely your own, nobody else can have it, who else is going to finish your piece of literary carpentry, unless it’s an Ikea chair?”

Don’t be that person in your writers’ workshop

“Too many young writers think of themselves as writers rather than that which they have written. Get used to this: it must be on the page. So don’t walk around thinking of yourself as a writer. Noth­ing worse than an author constantly obsessed with himself. If someone genuinely wants to know, they will ask. Say nothing. At least until you need to say some­thing.”

I am graduating with a concentration in creative writing, which means I sat through a bunch of writers’ workshops. Over time, I learned this: workshops are a bangin’ way to meet other writers. The community is amazing, and being around so many likeminded, nonjudgmental people is an incredible feeling. But when it comes to the actual critique part of the workshop, take it with a grain of salt. In theory, workshops are supposed to be judgment-free zones. But the truth is, not everyone knows how to workshop without being an asshole.

The problem with the human ego is that it needs to protect itself when vulnerable, and writers’ workshops are pretty vulnerable places. It’s natural for the ego to want to vault itself above others when it senses a threat. But if you want to be around other writers and have them actually enjoy your company, you’re going have to learn how to suppress those urges. Try to be mindful of a couple things: don’t describe your work with ego-boosting drivel that makes you sound like a pretentious cad. And if someone else in your workshop criticizes your piece (or acts like a pretentious cad), try not to retaliate by giving their work a verbal beatdown in return. It’ll make the workshopping process far more enjoyable for everyone, and you won’t experience pangs of shame later for acting like a complete jerk.

Also, don’t be a dick in general

“Don’t be a dick. At the party. In the bookstore. On the page. In your own head. Don’t call people names. Don’t insult your colleagues. Don’t tell people how great you are. Don’t drink all the wine. Don’t ignore your friends. Don’t think yourself better. Don’t condescend. Don’t leave your partner stranded. Don’t talk about your contract. Don’t mention your advance. Don’t make a fanfare of yourself. Don’t patronize. Don’t humiliate. Just don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t be a dick.”

This piece of advice is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t be a jerk because somebody has something you don’t, and don’t make other people feel like crap because you feel like crap about yourself (this applies to workshopping as well.) If you find yourself in doubt, try to take the high road. Being a jerk has a way of coming back to haunt the jerk in question– and if you want to be a part of a world as small as the writing community, it pays to keep that in mind.

Read everything.

“A young writer must read. She must read and read and read. She must read everything that comes her way. The classics, the old books that speak to her from the shelves, the tomes recommended by teachers. Your mind can contain so much. The greater the agility of your reading, the greater the elasticity of your own work.”

It doesn’t matter what type of writing you enjoy. In order to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. After taking dozens of English classes in college, I feel like I’ve finally read enough to understand how little I’ve read. When relatives ask me what I plan to do when I graduate, my answer is: read everything that I can get my hands on. It’s an honest answer because, after I graduate, I plan on continuously and actively engaging in the literary world.

A few asides:

  • The ability to read everything, even the most boring of classics, is a skill developed through practice.
  • As a friendly reminder, you won’t really be missing out on anything substantial if you don’t refresh Instagram for the 18th time today. However, you will be missing out on great books if you don’t dedicate time to reading them.
  • Keep your Norton anthologies after your class is class is over. I promise that they’ll come in handy for reading the classics.

But also discern which books are worth reading

“Life is too short to drink bad wine, but it’s shorter still when it comes to bad books. So be prepared to jettison that book, but only after you have given it a good chance.”

The best advice I’ve gotten from a professor: if you hate a book, put it down. Life is too short. This may appear to contradict my earlier statement, but it’s purpose is to encourage you to trust your instincts. There are books you should try to muster through, even if they are boring. However, if you’re really offended by something, just stop reading it. There’s hundreds of millions of books out there, and the average person is only going to read a small percentage of them. Move on and read something you like.

Read poetry

I don’t have a McCann quote for this, but poetry is badass. If you had a teacher that made you hate it in high school, I am sorry for you. However, now that you’re an adult, you have a responsibility to change that attitude. Take a poetry class in college, or attend readings with your creative writing friends. I did the latter before I did the former, and going to readings is how I fell in love with poetry. Hearing poetry and reading poetry are totally different experiences. Go to some readings, or listen to some Button Poetry on Youtube. I promise, poetry is just as vital to the human experience as music.

Do the work

Finally, nothing works unless you do. Do the work, then work some more. Writing professors aren’t required to go out on a limb for you, but they love it when you go out on a limb for them. If you keep working, you’ll be amazed at how many people will come out to bat for you. Stay humble, work hard, and enjoy college. And when you graduate, take this philosophy and enjoy life.

A few final tidbits of advice:

  • Forgive yourself when you make mistakes.
  • Life is about change. Enjoy the time you have with the people you love, because people change and move away and break-up. It’s inevitable.
  • Try to be in the moment, because college goes by fast.
  • Editing is your best friend.

That’s all! Peace out, UConn. I love you, always.

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