Oh So Mature Student

artsowl

I’ve been in and out of this door since the 1990s but hadn’t noticed this owl reading a book carved over the door until my husby pointed it out this Fall.

My first semester of graduate school has just ended. It was my first full-time gig outside our house since my kids were born. With school, my kids, and continued work on my career as a novelist, my commitments amounted to more than full-time. This would probably be the case for anyone who’s been alive as long as I have–who’s had this many years to complicate a life. Still, if you’re an old person (by which I mean, over 28) thinking about going back to school, I say take the time and do it. You can do it, especially if you heed these handy tips:

  • On campus, never use the bathrooms on the main floors. They are “oversubscribed.” The clean, peaceful third floor bathrooms are worth the hike and will provide all the privacy we need for using the facilities, or maybe even a quick cry. Which reminds me…
  • Get a good backpack and carry some Kleenex in it. You will be asked for it. In fact…
  • If a newly-minted grownup, a student, is lost on campus, desperately wishing their mom was around, and happens to see you walking along like a personal gift from a benevolent cosmos, they will prefer you over a peer as someone to stop to ask for directions and to help them generally feel less alone and sad. This is not a time to get snarky about “emotional labour.” It’s a time to be kind and patient and cultivate a rough knowledge of the whereabouts of those obscure computing science labs. But remember…
  • As far as educational achievement goes, the young students are our peers. It is completely inappropriate to try to assert dominance over them. If they don’t revert to treating us like they would their mom’s friends, great. Go with it. By and large, they are lovely humans and it is an honor to have any significance in their lives. However…
  • Go ahead and have high expectations of those young classmates. For a student, doing 80% of a perfect job will still earn them a decent final score on their schoolwork. For people who’ve been in the workforce, we know doing 80% of a perfect job could getcha fired. It’ll do the young folks good for you to insist on bringing that esoteric bibliography format up to code before you pass in the group project. And in the same vein…
  • As far as educational achievement goes, our professors, no matter what their ages, are not our peers. We must present ourselves to them every bit as humbly, as open-mindedly as the young students do. No one likes an old student who comes to class to act like she and the prof are out for coffee with a bunch of annoying kids tagging along—not the other students and not the professors either. As we show respect for our professors and the work they did obtaining academic expertise while we were doing other things, they will in turn show respect for us and those “other things” we were doing to contribute the world outside their expertise. Showing off and shutting people down are not how this respect is earned. And anyways…
  • Showing off would only set us up to look even stupider than necessary when the moments come for us to make dumb mistakes as school. Everyone messes up sometimes, especially people re-adapting to an educational system which had just about passed them by. The quicker and more good-humoredly we admit, own, and laugh off our mistakes, the more likely we are for other people to let them go too and maybe even to look out for us next time. Frankly, there is less social and academic peril in letting people think you’re a tiny bit stupider than you are than in letting them think you’re much, much smarter than you are.
  • Go ahead and be cool. As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of cool: selfish cool and selfless cool. When I was young, I admired the heck out of selfless cool people (I’m looking at you, Angie Dahl) and wished I knew how they did it. I think both kinds of cool include elements of not being overly anxious about taking social risks—even little risks like talking to strangers or to a room full of people—and taking those risks with ease and confidence. In cases of selfish coolness, this confidence is maintained by pre-emptively lashing out with cruel humor, abuse, or the shunning of those who would call into question the coolness. In selfless coolness, this confidence is maintained with warmth, sincere praise, and believing people are good and wish us the best until they actually do. The ease with which those kinds of feelings come is the best thing about being an old broad at school. I spend all day in a place where everybody is brilliant, beautiful, and loveable. School has always been this way, and now I am finally old enough to know.

What I Didn’t Tell My Fellow Creative Writing Students

Sesame Street’s Don Music with a bust of William Shakespeare

I remembered them from my days as a twentysomething undergrad: certain “mature” post-secondary students heck-bent on sharing their wisdom and experience. They stalled lectures, dominating professors’ attention with “the adults are talking” airs or by questioning everything professors professed—because what do those ivory-tower hacks know anyways?

This winter, I took a class called Advanced Creative Writing at my old university. It was a writing workshop—my first. Though I’m firmly on the path of free-range writing rather than a hot-house writing, it’s okay if my range overlaps a hot-house for a few hours every week.

As I walked up the Humanities Centre stairs, I knew I didn’t want to be “that” mature student. I said so when it was my turn to introduce myself to the class. My professor, a talented author who had kindly waived the portfolio prerequisite because he’d already read my novel, stopped me and told the class I was there “to help” as well as to learn.

This was generous of him. I’m not sure how well I walked the line between helping and infuriating my classmates. I’m pretty sure I used the phrase, “I already graduated, what do I care?” too many times.

Naturally, I gravitated toward class members most like my sons and my youngest sister. Though familiar, this was not my usual writing crowd—far from the scene of a Linda Leith Publishing vin d’honneur—but the honor of being among talented people before they’ve made it (whatever that means) wasn’t lost on me. In the end, I managed to leave the course with a good though moot grade, one hug, and some sweet goodbyes.

Now that it’s over, no more restraint. Here’s the list I’ve suppressed all semester—the things Mama Mature Student would have told the class if she hadn’t been checked by all this dang self-awareness. It’s not that I wasn’t asked questions—one about episiotomies leaps to mind—but the full force of my advice rampage has been held back until now.

If you are or ever plan to be a creative writing student, consider this:

Be nice – This echoes the university’s writer in residence who visited our class. He went so far as to recommend we read How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s not bad advice. Some of the most cringe-worthy things I can’t forget myself saying were said in my early twenties. Remember Franzen made his name before the social media age, back when authors’ rough styles could be easily managed by publicists. Personal scrutiny has never been closer than it is now and in a competitive arts world full of very good work, a skill like not openly rolling our eyes might be a career tipping point. Unfortunately, arts careers are a little like small businesses and our personalities can combine with our art to form an unsightly hybrid product that’s difficult to sell.

Take heart. Canadian literary communities, particularly the Alberta one with which I’m most familiar, tend to be collegial. We cheer one another, writing blurbs and retweeting announcements along the way. It’s easy to be nice here.

Be generous – Our professor held a book launch during the semester and only three of us came. Not cool. Go to local book events. We don’t have to buy all the new books (with writer wages, we probably won’t be able to) but realize that many authors arrive at their events convinced they’ll be facing a room of empty chairs, peppered with a few blood relatives feeling sorry and embarrassed for them. If at all possible, do not let this happen. Anyways, it’ll be fun. It’s moving and fascinating to hear people offering vocal interpretations of their own work—not work they’ve been picking at for classes but work they’ve toiled over for years, work they’ve staked their futures on. Go ahead and laugh at their jokes, gasp at their horror stories. Weep openly, if you feel like it. Events are more fun, more productive, and more satisfying when we invest ourselves in them.

Don’t take the workshop process too seriously – I am an old woman raised in the pre-Elmo golden age of Sesame Street and one of my favourite characters was Don Music. He’s an angsty songwriter we find one word shy of completing perfect nursery songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” When his near-perfect songs get “help” from a visitor, they get mangled into parodies with details that make so much literal sense the artistry of the songs become absurd. Our workshops were like that at times. I saw (and benefitted personally from) great suggestions coming from workshop discussions. However, I also saw classmates balk at truly powerful and original aspects of their stories because of well-meant questions these risks raised during workshops.Critique is a vital tool in writing but so is the discretion to resist pressure when it’s pushing a story in the wrong direction–when we know it’s time to depart from expectations. Remember the lessons of Don Music.

Don’t take your parents too seriously – Everyone’s parents betray them in some way. That’s the rule, not the exception. We all sit down to write reeling from that trauma. But look at where we are. We’re not roughneck-ing in the oil patch, we’re in university. We’re in university not to get a traditionally marketable skill like teaching or engineering. We’re in the Faculty of Arts. And we’re not just in the Faculty of Arts, we’re studying the fine art of creative writing. There are reasons we are here and our parents are probably among them. Maybe they hate this field. Maybe they deserve to become caricatures lampooned or eviscerated in fiction. But they also deserve a nod for the privilege we enjoy as people having a go at an expensive, elite liberal arts education. The idea that this privilege is universal regardless of the circumstances and people we were born among–even in Canadian society, it’s false.

Explore the free range – Make sure life is built upon pillars other than reading and writing. Duck out of the academic hot-house for a while–and not just through travel stunts. The daily grind is an excellent teacher. Some of the most interesting fiction in the class came from people who work part-time in stores and bars, in the real world where they form and sustain relationships with people nothing like themselves.

There was great sensitivity in the class. Sensitivity to our own feelings needs to be augmented by sensitivity to other people’s feelings or it will never be enough to make our writing real and potent. Empathy is everything. As the man says, “You can’t write if you can’t relate…” Love people—everyone. That is how they are known. That is how they will come to know and love you and your art.

Thank you so much, and all the best…