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John Harvard's Journal | The Undergraduate

“A Few Writing Projects”

November-December 2016

Illustration by Francis Livingston


Illustration by Francis Livingston

Somewhere around the beginning of June, I received a kind note from a magazine editor—really the sort of kindness you see only in a letter of rejection, where somehow the formality almost stings more than if the note were just rude. After this, the latest in a string of rejections for the miniscule group of paid editorial positions that I’d tracked down, I decided that, if I really wanted to break into the writing world, maybe my best efforts would be spent actually writing. The calculation was simple: I had three months of free time ahead of me and was lucky to have a place to stay at home with a loving and supportive family. Yet, the idea was nerve-wracking.

For many Harvard students, the pathways to postgraduate careers are relatively clear and regimented, and ample summer internships are a fixture of the schedule. This is not to say that, for example, the reported 40 percent of the class of 2016 who ended up working in finance or consulting weren’t wrestling with existential quandaries about their futures. I’d bet that most were. But, given the extensive recruiting process, the on-campus interview program, the tailor-made internship-to-analyst-to-business-school job runway, an attractive to-do list emerges that makes it easier to manage the confounding idea of one’s own future. Fully knowing that their path wasn’t mine, I still couldn’t help but feel worried about the relative lack of structure in my summer routine.

Harvard undergraduates interested in entering the arts commonly complain that the first steps down the path are not so obvious. For hopeful writers, the landscape can seem bleak. As print publishing continues to suffer and media further conglomerates toward Google & Co., there seem to be fewer and fewer entry-level positions. Many print internships are unpaid, which makes the paid gigs fiercely competitive. Some outlets that received grief and legal trouble for not paying interns, most famously Condé Nast, have decided to eliminate their internship programs to avoid the hassle, replacing them with “fellowships” not meant for matriculated students.

Given all these hurdles, I had to, jobless and on my own terms, declare myself a writer. When I shuffled around to places with my parents over the summer and people asked me what I was doing, I said, sheepishly, “I’m working on a few writing projects.” I thought back to all the superficial things that helped attract me to writing in the first place, all the flourishes that extend beyond the words on the page. I remembered how Albert Camus looked on the dust jacket of The Stranger in my little high-school library: thick pea coat, collar popped, cigarette dangling from lips, knowing eyes peering. I remembered how smart and right everything looked the first time I walked into the Advocate, the juniors and seniors dressed in black, sipping wine in the candlelit clapboard house, projecting their 20-year-olds’ sense of writerliness. I remembered walking through a writer’s house and, upon finding a thudding coffee-table book of writers’ houses, paging through glossy shots of Hemingway’s house, with its taxidermy, yellow tile, and floral upholstery. It looked just like his writing.

Not only was my writing life not that sexy, it wasn’t as straightforwardly productive as I thought three open months would yield. When I was lucky, things would snap into focus for a few hours and my writing life looked like me, alone in a room, typing away. But I spent an excruciating amount of time sitting in front of my laptop, just staring at the screen. When two hours would pass with barely any progress, thoughts would creep in about prior jobs, where my work was measured in clocked-time as much as it was measured in finished product and I could always feel like I was putting in a full day.

Most of the time, my writing didn’t look like what I expected. It invariably looked like waking up later than I’d promised myself I would the night before. I slept in the basement, where there was a small rectangular window seven-eighths of the way up the wall, level with the front lawn, and by the time I woke up and squinted at the room, light was already streaming through at both a strength and an angle too high for just waking up – a calculus the body just does implicitly. I experimented with how much coffee I should drink, surely inundating landfills with punctured Keurig pods. I went on walks around the neighborhood with my dog, the sky soupy and car hoods sizzling with July radiation. I ate dozens of bowls of watermelon, primarily because my mom is a fanatic and knows the ripeness litmus tests that involve mysteriously smacking the fruit. I watched hours of bad TV: Family Feud, reruns of Seinfeld, and a dating show where 20 people living in a house have to find their true love for “a shot at a million dollars.” I drove my little brother and his best friend around late at night to play mini golf and get ice cream, blasting Kanye West at top volume and talking about the life of 15-year-old boys.

A lot of my time, in this respect, seemed aimless. But respecting this aimlessness was the best way to keep writing when I could. As fall arrived, thrusting me back into the structure of college life – the dining hours, the meetings, the endless stream of emails – it made me reflect on the summer even more. I recently read a Paris Review interview with the great short-story writer Amy Hempel that framed this nicely. She suggests of her writing process, “…another way of doing it—to live in the two landscapes of that Charles Wright poem. ‘One that is eternal and divine / and one that’s just the backyard.’” While trying to write, I felt caught between embracing an abstract, sort of lofty, sense of inspiration and the well-trod minutiae of everyday life. I hoped always to connect to this inspiration—call it eternal and divine, or whatever you choose. I thought I’d be able to reach it through brute force: locking myself in a room and putting in enough time that good work would flow out. But the only way I could consistently get to that out-of-reach place was to spend the majority of my time in the backyard, fooling around.

If writing, or doing any sort of creative work, is about learning your own method to negotiate these two landscapes—fitting one into the other, forcing both to influence each other, living between and in both—then there’s no internship that can promise this lesson, at least directly. My peers and I who are annoyed by the relatively unclear path to an artistic career should perhaps find solace in this fact. As the summer went on, I think I grew more confident in this conviction. I hadn’t yet articulated it as such, but I could feel my writing getting better as I tried inflecting it more with a sense of the backyard. In retrospect, the fiction that resulted was only able to circle around Big Ideas—evolving masculinity, the spirit of growing up, whatever it was—by reacting sensitively to all the things I did with my little brother, my parents, and my friends in my lazy hometown. I worked on lots of projects over the summer—a senior thesis, magazine journalism, a comedy musical, short stories—but if I can just manage to take forward the idea of living sensitively in the backyard in my writing, and my life at large, I’ll consider those few months, waking up late in the basement, a huge accomplishment. 

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