Lessons Learned at Year’s End

I survived my first semester in graduate school! I wrote far less than I wanted, yet more than I’d expected.  I met incredibly talented writers who cared as much about their own work as that of their peers.  I was fortunate enough to have two advisors for my independent projects who not only got my work, but they got me:  a quirky writer – OK, all writers are quirky, I’ll give you that.  They provided insight and constructive critique that nudged me on when I got stuck; and they encouraged me to keep flying when I found my writers’ wings.  I was also blessed to have some professors whose work and teaching inspired me.  I rediscovered the works of short story writers I hadn’t read in eons and discovered new ones.  I made headway on a play about dancers that sat on the back burner for longer than I’m willing to admit.  I greatly benefitted from group critique from students in the Photography, Visual and Critical Studies and the Writing Departments.

With the year’s end, I’m taking everything into account as I move forward.  I believe that I’m becoming a better teacher and a better student, although there is major room for improvement.  Seriously?  I’ve not yet hit any stride that I can celebrate – what writer does?!  We are duty bound, it seems, to live, sit and stay in the land of critique.  It’s a force of habit and I’m just not able to turn the critic off for too long!

I critiqued my teachers as I critiqued my own teaching.  I learned how to pay greater attention to issues of inclusion, bringing some students out without shining an unwanted spotlight on those who felt uncomfortable under such a glare.  With others, I failed miserably.  I learned to forgive those mistakes and use them to expand my pedagogy.  I learned to continue to push for all students to be heard and to encourage fledgling efforts in an equitable manner, leaving no student feeling as if their work had been slighted.  There is nothing worse than the look of disappointment on the face of a writer whose work is glossed over in cursory critique, while another’s is given fully more than his/her share of class time.

I critiqued my role as a student.  I was disappointed when I was just too spent to write another word, feeling as if I had “left it all on the floor” and hadn’t!  I chided myself when I fell in love/lust with my first draft…my #1 TEACHING NO NO, along with failure to adequately revise and edit!  I watched my reaction when I didn’t get the type of feedback that I anticipated.  I accepted that I was there to improve my writing and I pushed back when my work was misunderstood or misrepresented.  I reminded myself who I was and was becoming as a writer; and why I wrote: to be an effective communicator of ideas and NOT for any particular person‘s approval.  Finally, I reminded myself that if I am to become a more effective writer that my primary purpose is to become fully invested in the learning process among a community of talented, dedicated wordsmiths.

I want to think that I engaged in enough self-examination to check my biases at the door or at least to confront them. Hopefully I demonstrated a measure of grace when I heard an ignorant, racist or ageist statement, or when something I wrote was exoticized, based on ideas about the author and her culture.  Maybe I found a way to confront that type of ignorance in a strong but non-confrontational way (Impossible?!) while not demonizing the “offender”.  I hope I learned to be a better listener, more tolerant of work that I did not particularly like but somehow learned to find something of value in it anyway.

Finally, I hope that I was able to quell some of my fear of ageism in the academy, both others and my own.  Some of it was unfounded.  Sadly, some of it was not!  I was surprised when I chalked up some of what I heard and read to youthful naivete and some to the core development of voice, style and content in a writer’s work.  I pray that I remained open to other perspectives and didn’t patronize writers’ work, while I brought some of the wisdom of lived experience to my comments and critiques.

Despite the tragedy of losing my brother at the start of the semester and dealing with a dear friend facing terminal illnesses, I am thankful that I was able to remain focused on my work and the incredible opportunity to pursue my MFA.  All and all, this was a good year.

December 21, 2011