Marinating in Bile: A Document of Social Anxiety and Student Frustration

 * This post was originally written in February ’14. See postscript for rationale.

Early last year, I made a joking self-comparison with the misanthropic protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. It was during one of those exhaustive around-the-room introduction exchanges that tend to fill first weeks at uni. I was nervous, and hoped my quip would come across in its intended context. What I said, unintentionally, and to a roomful of people, was ‘I hate people’; what I’d meant was that I begrudgingly own social awkwardness as a defining characteristic and generally disdain small talk. You know: haha, self-deprecation!

Needless to say, the joke landed with a thud. Why am I (paraphrastically) retelling it now? Because bitterness colours this post. I hope to come across charmingly cynical, like Bernard from Black Books, or Dr House from House, but, as in the earlier example, will probably come across as more of a miserable git, ala Morrissey or Robert Smith. But, look, it does say ‘rants’ up there in my blog banner, and to be honest that’s a quota I don’t feel I’ve adequately filled. I originally wrote most of this back in February 2014, but chose to sit on it for fear of reproach. Consequently, this one’s been marinating in bile all year. I’m no chef, but feel it’s probably ready now. (No one wants their rants overcooked. Or their introductions overlong …)

We’ll start big. I generally hate everything about modern Western culture. I hate most everything on TV; I hate inconsiderate people (i.e. most of Melbourne’s population); I hate the inane things people say to fill a quiet; I hate asinine internet slang (‘Cool story, bro’, ‘Still a better love story than Twilight’, etc); I hate the wide misuse of ‘literally’; I hate the liberal overuse of ‘hate’; I hate people who contradict themselves (geddit?); I hate my multitude of shortcomings. I could probably rewrite ‘My Favourite Things’, with the sources of my ire replacing the objects of Julie Andrews’ affection. Incidentally, I also hate The Sound of Music.

I don’t hate everything, though. Miserable Brit-Pop’s all right.

Anyway, here’s a vitriolic, overdue post about my disillusioning final years of study.

 * * *

What’s bothering me lately (or at least at the time I originally wrote this) is the sense of apathy pervading my higher ed writing course. Very few students seem to give a fuck about their work, which lowers the bar and standard of education. Most, it seems, are there purely for something to do, or to satisfy abstract, romanticised notions about what it means to be a writer. They groan when appointed trivial 2,000-word essays (less than a day’s work, according to King!), despite having upwards of four weeks to compose them, and resent the ambitious semester-long creative projects, even though the curriculum writers have made every effort to accommodate our vastly different interests. There’s a lot of narrow-mindedness in my course. How can a writer meet the conceptualisation and design of a magazine (on which we’re given complete creative freedom) with anything but celebration? How can a writer find studying works by the world’s most influential short story writers a chore? What could be more valuable than listening to the personalised advice of professional guest speakers? I just don’t get it.

Before I get too carried away, I must clarify that I’m speaking generally; there are certainly some good eggs in class who make thoughtful, enthusiastic contributions and show engagement with the material. Even the apathetic students deserve some credit, for they will intermittently switch on whenever snippets of lecture personally engage them. I must also stress that the apathy I’ve perceived is no fault of the teachers or institution, as I generally believe the quality of my education is of a high standard. Frankly, this ennui is something that has infiltrated at a cultural level. It could even be a generational thing. My course is an interesting microcosm, but I shan’t go down that rabbit hole.

Since I’m talking in annoying abstracts (another pet hate), I should, for illustrative purposes, give an example of this apathy. At the start of the year, one of our teachers asked for a show of hands from those who’d gotten writing done over the ridiculous three-month break. Only six in a class of over twenty self-identified ‘writers’ raised their hands. Their excuses were thin – family, holidays, ‘it was a hot summer’. Unacceptable. If you’ve the will to write, it’ll happen. All it takes is self-sacrifice. Anyone can substitute fifteen minutes of daily television time to write. Three months at that pace and progress is inevitable. My classmates simply lost direction, which isn’t good enough. What kind of writer needs course-imposed deadlines to work? At our level, we should be writing for the inherent joy of it.

Another common attitude I hear is: ‘I’m not interested in the publishing side of things; I just want to write!’ This irks me because these students enrolled – at fair expense – to do a degree in Writing and Publishing. If creative writing’s their sole vocational interest, why not join a writers’ group, or enrol in one of Melbourne’s innumerable creative writing short courses? The publishing aspect is what makes this degree so progressive. Even if we don’t want a career in publishing, it’s beneficial to learn as much as possible about the larger book-making process.

We’ve had a few new teachers this year, many of whom weren’t accustomed to our group’s sarcastic disposition, or our collective indifference. It amused and disappointed me seeing the change in these teachers’ manners; they understood they’d have to prise answers from us, that it would take a tap dance and firework display to hold our interest. Some of these teachers are sessional and it embarrasses me that we’ve negatively informed their perceptions of students from this institution. ‘Writing class of ’14? Yeah, yeah, I remember: the ones who didn’t give a fuck.’

In case it sounds like I have some unchecked (and, believe me, unjustified) superiority complex, I’ll confess that I’m not entirely innocent of this behaviour. My mind readily wanders when I feel unstimulated. I’m perpetually sleep-deprived and having internet-enabled laptops at our disposal is a terrible temptation. I don’t fault the teachers or coursework; eight hours is just a long time to have to sit with sustained focus – especially for me, as an introvert, since socialising tends to drain rather than energise me.

Another triviality: static class environments don’t help. My last campus was multi-levelled, and attending classes meant ping-ponging around it, forever changing environments. Different rooms gave the lectures different flavours (perhaps why Myths and Symbols felt as oppressive as high school history class). In our current situation, we’re entombed in the same room for all four classes. Granted, it’s a lavish, open room with natural lighting and great acoustics, but being rooted to any one spot inspires stir-craziness.

I don’t mean to throw my fellow students under the bus but, for many of them, their problems come down to ill-defined goals. (Another reason I champion list writing.) They have no idea what they want out of the course. They’ve not thought about where they’ll fit within the industry post-qualification and therefore can’t visualise applying the taught knowledge in a real-world setting. Many want to be professional writers, but have no interest in the practical implications of this. They don’t care about establishing a professional writing schedule, keeping abreast of industry developments, playing the networking game or engaging with the literary community. They don’t submit to journals, or read widely, and they drag their heels if appointed tasks that don’t align with their narrow personal interests.

To make matters worse, many students make shallow, obvious contributions to class discussions. We discuss things that third or fourth-year publishing students should know. I must be an anarchist for publishing this, but most of the time, during class discussions, I feel unstimulated, deflated.

I’ve technically studied writing at three different campuses, with three different batches of people, so feel qualified to speak on the differences in attitudes, as least as I’ve perceived them. The first campus experience was a false start: I was young, green, and not at all ready for the Real World. Despite this, I recall spirited, stimulating discussion between students. I was somewhat spoiled at the second campus, for my time was spent alongside generally kind, enthusiastic, switched-on writers. Since then, however, I’ve been stuck with know-it-alls, antagonistic liberals and serial complainers. (Generally speaking, of course – I can’t, in good conscience, lump everyone in these categories.)

I don’t mean to sound pigheaded. I appreciate that people approach study for different reasons. I understand we’re at different levels and have different goals. But this is supposed to be adult education and I’m getting too old for high school theatrics. Case in point: earlier this year there was an ongoing feud between parties with different ideologies. One, boisterous and unyielding, was clearly at fault, but the actions of the so-called innocent party blurred this line. At every intermission, the class degenerated into gossip-mongering. Being privy to their private nastiness, I shuddered to think how the offending party (however unworthy of sympathy) must have felt entering a classroom that charged with vitriol. It makes me wonder what some of them think of me. I rarely engage socially, so it’s amusing to wonder what conclusions might’ve been drawn about my manner or competencies.

I’m digressing. But you see what a circus life on campus can be. I want to join a writers’ group in the future, and am hoping (praying!) to find one that’s a good fit. I’d love to find people with whom I could have a laugh, but more importantly I want to be around likeminded writers who are serious about their craft and who conduct themselves with professionalism. Is that too much to ask?

* This post was originally written in February, and does not reflect my current feelings about my former peers, or my overall study experience. I’m posting it despite the attitude change because I feel it’s an honest documentation of my frustrations at the time. This was a generally difficult year for me, and I’ve often turned to writing to process some of these challenges. I want my blog to be honest and truthful, and feel it’s important to share posts like these, even if they embarrass me and even if I’m afraid of the consequences.

For fans of happy endings, it’s worth noting that the year got better as it went along. A lot of students – notably the more difficult personalities – dropped out or stopped attending classes. Those that remained demonstrated ample commitment to their craft, and throughout the year I made more of an effort to get to know them. Overall, despite numerous unmentioned challenges native to the institution, this was an enjoyable and productive year. I think it’s important to own and process our uglier emotions (lest they fester). Perhaps that’s why I find boxing and writing so cathartic. But, hey, so now you know I’m a massive jerk. Where to from here?

Advertisements

A Day in the Life – 30/10/14

Free-writing today, because I fear the muscle will atrophy if I don’t get into a daily habit.

© Gracie Cannell, flickr.com

© Gracie Cannell, flickr.com

First week of job hunting’s almost over. No takers yet, but I’m told these things take time. I have, at least, been placed on a few freelancer databases – which I’m taking as a positive sign, though it’s probably just routine response for publishers dealing with cold-calling editors. I’m considering free content writing while I await the coveted call-back. Much as I loathe the exploitation pervading this industry, I think it’ll help me build a diverse portfolio of non-fiction writing (presently most of my published work is fiction). I also want a project to sink my teeth into. I spend a lot of time on my own, and tend to succumb to depression if I don’t have a distraction, something stimulating to work on.

I love you, Anne Hegerty!

I love you, Anne Hegerty!

(Here’s an embarrassing admission: my weekdays presently revolve around my daytime TV schedule. I daily tune in for Yu-Gi-Oh! [for nostalgia], Dr Phil [for morbidity] and The Chase [for entertainment/Old Frosty Knickers]. Obviously this can’t go on, though on particularly stagnant days these shows are all the daily happiness I get. The real cause for concern will be if I start watching TMZ.)

Anyway, my current priorities are: continue to apply for jobs; write various commissioned non-fiction articles (i.e. fitness-related, mental health-related, music-related, advertising stuff …); commence work on an interactive CV/writing portfolio, to keep on top of InDesign and to have something to direct prospective employers to; redesign blog; give NaNo another crack; and, finally, finish the numerous WIP blog posts that are scattered all over my desktop.

To combat the aforementioned depression, I’m resolving to interact with at least one human being a day. Interactions can include small-talk with shopkeepers, which I am famously awful at.

Yesterday I made the fairly spontaneous decision to visit Busybird, the publishing house where I once interned. It ended up being a great day. I was able to complete some internet research (in service of getting a job), and I had actual conversation using actual human words (English, I think). I proposed to my former employers that I might come in once a week during this (hopefully brief) tenure of unemployment, so that I might enjoy their wonderful creative space, use them as sounding boards and help out as necessary. Perhaps I could start referring to myself as the unofficial writer in residence. Could even wear a badge. Either way, it sure is great to be around creative people, kind people. I learnt a valuable lesson from those long winters of self-imposed social isolation (eight-week mid-semester breaks … brrrr!), so am endeavouring to get out more and see people.

Today I went to my old school (the one I finished up at last week) for a catch-up brunch/coffee thing (at which I had neither brunch, nor coffee). It was lovely. Even though I’ve endured – and continue to endure – a horrendous viral infection, it was still great to get away from my various neuroses and laugh, talk and listen to others. One friend, whose selflessness I’ve grown to adore, is also battling flu-like symptoms. Shaking hers is imperative for she’s leaving for Fiji next week. Another friend told me about all the difficulties her and her partner have gone through these past few years. They’ve had a lot of bad luck, and a long string of financial and familial disappointments. My heart goes out to them. I get the sense they’d be happy if the universe would only give them a much-deserved break. The third friend is going really well, with an impressive writing-related internship and some fortuitous part-time creative work. She brought her brilliant poodle with her, and seems in good stead for the next year. I’m hopeful these catch-ups can continue into the New Year, as I find I come away from them in a much better headspace.

Also while at school, I decided I won’t be going to my graduation ceremony. Despite this post, I’m not especially sentimental, and so ultimately deemed it not worth the money. Can anyone who’s completed long-term study weigh in on this? Do you think I’ll regret it? belljarAnyway, now that I’ve finished The Bell Jar (not the best book to read when you’re straddling depression), I’m ready to begin my friend’s novel, which I’ve been looking forward to for some time. Is there anything you’d like to share about your day, readers? I’d love to hear it. What challenges have you overcome? What are you grateful for?

An Update (Inc. News of Recent Publishing Successes)

Just an update on what my last few months have been like, writing-wise.

Study

In late November, I completed my third year of study and attained an Associate Degree in Writing and Publishing. This was my first year at a new campus, and I only knew one other person going into it. (Ever the introvert, I know about three–four coming out of it.) Overall, a valuable way to spend my year. The course has helped me further refine my writing, editing and publishing skills. The highlights were the fantastic lecturers and the guest speakers, who came from all walks of the industry. I’m looking forward to 2014, the year I commence working towards a Bachelor of Writing and Publishing. (This will also be my final year of study, unless I go on to do a PhD.)

Published Work

I’ve been a little lax about sending work out this year. Although I came away with a string of rejections (mostly the encouraging, personalised kind), the string was not as long as 2012’s. Nevertheless, here are my two recent publishing successes.

  • The first was in the ninetieth issue of American literary journal, Crack the Spine. This story, ‘The Wall’ (found here), and I have been through a lot together; it had been knocked back – always with positive comments – and subsequently redrafted many, many times. I always believed in this one, so the fact that I was eventually able to place it feels like a lesson in perseverance. Notably, this marks my first international publishing credit. (Unless I count Vine Leaves – a journal that operates from Greece, but is run by two Australians.) Continue reading