What I Learned My First Semester as a Grad Student (Or, Writing Lessons That Are Also Life Lessons)

I learned a lot my first semester as a creative writing graduate student. I have grown a lot this semester. I have wanted to quit numerous times, but I didn’t. As a result, I’ve learned a lot. And now I want to share it with y’all. The following are some of the writing lessons I’ve learned that are also life lessons. Because writing is life.

  • You can’t write nonfiction without imagination. You have to imagine what it’s like to be in a certain community.
  • Detail is what gives you culpability and tangibility; it forms a bridge between the emotions you are sharing and the reader.
  • Show, don’t tell. Be dramatic as opposed to expository. Don’t just flat out explain.
  • You don’t need to tell everything.
  • Your reader does not know what you know.
  • Be kind to the reader. Don’t too obviously manipulate or confuse them. It isn’t nice to screw with people’s heads.
  • Unless there’s a really good reason to withhold information, don’t do it. Some of you will know it and some of you won’t, but the writer knows it. The writer has a responsibility to share what they know with the reader.
  • You’re going to write something, and people are either going to like it or they’re not. You can’t really control that.
  • Make your writing as visual as possible so that the reader can see what you are trying to say.
  • A writer is nothing more than a person who knows how to express themselves.
  • Get underneath the surface as much as possible.
  • Be one on whom nothing is lost. Create a new world.
  • The voice you construct is both you and not you.
  • If you bring the gun into the room, it should go off by the end of the play. Otherwise, why is it there?
  • The problem with long quotes is that they aren’t your voice; the reader is reading for your voice, not for the quotes.
  • Who cares who told you something? It’s yours now. Own it.
  • If you want to make a portrait, you have to use shadows.
  • Your audience is probably someone like you, who doesn’t necessarily have all the knowledge or experience you do. You write for yourself, but also for strangers.
  • Be honest, critical, and ruthless with your narrator.
  • Start from the edges of the situation and move in.
  • If you’re interested in what they have to say, people like to talk and will open up. You’re gonna write anyway, so people will want their point to be heard.
  • Don’t put it in the piece if you don’t know for sure it’s true.
  • Keep in mind that when you talk to someone, they could be lying.
  • Not everything is known. There’s always more you can find out, and you can’t let people dissuade you.
  • People want a complicated view, but you’re going to piss people off. There’s always someone who will love your work, and always someone who will hate it. You have to love what you’re doing.
  • It’s very hard to get a perspective on your own material.
  • When you find you’re hitting repetition, you know it’s time to stop.
  • Too much material not organized can fall through the cracks.
  • Be open to surprises, and remember it’s your work. You do what you want. You make it happen.
  • You have to earn money, but in some ways you can’t spend forever. Give yourself a deadline and stick to it as much as you can. Try to do something every day. This way you’re always in touch with what you’re doing.
  • Being minimal is okay. Clear and concise. Cut the bullshit. You could also have a lot going on, and that’s okay too.
  • A piece does not necessarily need a resolution. It does, however, need a moment of repose or reflection.
  • It may not make sense for the narrator to become an entirely new self. It depends on the scope of the piece.
  • If you’re straining too much to read something, maybe it’s what you’re reading, not you.
  • Sometimes it’s hard to tell if your experiment is working—so trust yourself.
  • If you’re confused about something, that’s fine. But the piece can’t be confused. It is fine to create the experience of confusion, but it is not fine to confuse the reader.
  • You can’t just talk about your perception of the information, or you’ll lose the reader. Know as much as possible about the subject before you start writing.
  • Own what you are doing; make it your experience. Master it as much as your own experience.
  • When your voice is wobbling, you haven’t assimilated the material enough yet.
  • Nobody is gonna make the time for you. You just have to be pretty ruthless about making it yourself.
  • You’re a writer if you’re writing.
  • Don’t put crap out there; you want to represent yourself well.
  • Remember this mantra: This is the best I can do right now. Your best may change later, but for now, it’s okay.

One semester down! I DID IT! This is the best I can do right now. And someday, I will do even better.

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One thought on “What I Learned My First Semester as a Grad Student (Or, Writing Lessons That Are Also Life Lessons)

  1. Congrats on that first semester. Such great tips.

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