Email to a Young Writer at the Beginning of the Term

by Jeff Oaks

Dear R,

Well, there are two answers to your question. Maybe three answers. Let me see if I can get them in some kind of order.

1) The easiest answer is this: go talk to your professor for the Shakespeare class and ask him or her exactly what you’ve asked me. I can usually help a student focus on a subject for an essay if I talk to the student directly, one-on-one, in my office. You should have read the entirety of Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Mark any places where you have trouble or you notice a pattern. those might be places to start thinking. It might help you to get some sense of what the professor is looking for as well. How scholarly is scholarly for this professor? Sometimes knowing something very simple, like how long the paper should be, will help. Don’t be afraid of your professors; we really do want to help.

2) The slightly more complicated is this: you’re pushing yourself too hard. This is only the first week, and already you’re having a crisis. Try not to panic so early! College is a big shift for almost everyone, even very well prepared and enthusiastic students like yourself. Maybe it’s especially hard for students who come in with very high expectations like yourself. You need to give yourself some settling in time. If I’d been your advisor, I probably would’ve suggested not taking so many writing based classes in your first semester because it is very hard even for experienced writers to “crank out” quality pieces of writing at any speed. I might not have thrown you into an Honors class so immediately, at least not until you’ve gotten used to the pace of this place. But you might also be fine. (By the way, don’t think that you’re the only one having problems in the class; in my experience everyone thinks that, but it is almost never true.)

And you’re right that essay writing is not a guided process here at Pitt. You can get help at the Writing Center, which is a great resource to use–and I can suggest some tutors over there if you want–but first see if your Shakespeare professor can’t help you a little bit. Does he or she have office hours yet? Go and see him or her! We actually do like people to come and talk to us about problems or issues from class. Some students feel like they’re intruding if they come to office hours, but believe me, you aren’t! Those hours are for you, so use that time. As an added bonus you’ll get to know a real professor which ,if you hope to be one one day, will give you a sense of what it’s like to be one.

3) The last thing I’ll say is about your fear that the more the more you study English, the more juvenile your own writing will seem. That is absolutely true, and it can be, at least for a while, a disheartening feeling. Many many students were the best students in their schools and got used to being the best, the smartest, the most noticed, and then they come to college and they realize that there are far more people at the same level and they’re not quite as special as they’re used to being. That’s part of every freshman’s experience. If you can, try to embrace that feeling because it gives you a chance to slow down a bit, to re-examine your priorities, change your direction if necessary. You don’t have to be the same person you were in high school. You can try out, and probably should try out, some new directions. There’s such a wide range of possibilities for you to consider. Think of college as one of the points where you have access not just to information but to change itself. Maybe in fact you don’t want to be an English major. Maybe Astrophysics is more interesting, maybe Neurobiology or Psychology or Music? There is a buffet of choices here. At least your first year ought to be about tasting a little bit of everything–because the other thing is this: if you really want to be a writer, you should be interested in all of those other things and not just narrowly literary studies. They will all help your writing in different ways. Sometimes by shifting your perspective, sometimes by giving you a new language to describe an experience in, sometimes by providing a fantastic distraction. I completely agree with you, for example, about Shakespeare: love the sonnets and often get lost in the plays’ language. That doesn’t make you a bad writer though. You just keep trying to find what seems to speak to you. Maybe it will be the poet Issa or William Blake or Elizabeth Bishop or Toni Morrison. I found great pleasure in the essays of Stephen Jay Gould and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. (You may also find that you love certain plays of Shakespeare’s and not others; you don’t have to love everything equally. I love Lear and The Tempest but I don’t care about the comedies at all.)

What you’ll find during this search will be the people who make you want to write, despite the fact that you may never be as great a writer as your models. You’ll want to write anyway because it’s a great pleasure to respond to all the complex, terrible, beautiful, overwhelming heritage we have been given to use. After a while, you’ll notice that your writing will get more complicated, more weird, more interesting. You won’t, I should warn you, probably lose a certain kind of self-doubt. You’ve crossed over a kind of threshold already, which is I think why you probably wrote to me: you’ve found out how much there is to know. You know now that you don’t know everything and that it’s not possible to know everything. That realization is humbling and even frightening at first. You may want to hide out from it, and it’s fine to do that for a day or two–watch stupid movies, go out and walk the dog, go to Phipps and look at the flower garden. But it is also the source of a tremendous joy and excitement to be the recipient of all the knowledge the world has and is producing and to begin your own work toward creating even more knowledge and truth and beauty and all that stuff.

Take a breath. Make sure you get enough sleep and food and water and laughter. You’ve got four more years at least. You’re just beginning. Welcome to the club.