I always knew I wanted to write, but I never wanted to be an English major.
I suppose I should justify myself—after all, I am about to complete three and a half years of this supposedly-unwanted English major. It’s just that my head is stuffed full of character sheets and scrawling chapter outlines, and not Shakespeare or Dickens or the Psychoanalysis Theory. I came to St. Norbert College as the amateur author of a fantasy trilogy, stubbornly telling my parents that “I don’t need a degree to write a book.” I knew an English degree wouldn’t hurt, that it would lead me closer to the publishing field and grant me opportunities that would have never come my way at home, but the thought of spending thousands of dollars on a subject that didn’t make my heart grow ten sizes was a thought I could hardly bear.
But I went. I went, because St. Norbert wasn’t far from home and had creative writing opportunities and a quaint campus and just a bunch of squirrels who really sold it to me. Being a first-year student was strange: I came into my first class absolutely positive I would gain nothing from these years besides reading more books and writing more essays. I already knew how to read a book with the eyes of an analytic, and I already knew what a good researched close reading should look like; I’d been doing it all my high school life. The real challenge I faced my first year was learning to accept the experience for what it was, and accepting that there was still much for me to learn as a creative writer even if the kind of writing this major offered wasn’t always the enigmatic fiction I drooled after.
I overcame this by taking inventory of what I was missing: despite my thorough high school training, including testing out of English 150 with my AP Credit, I wasn’t really as versed in the literary world as I thought I was. But in my Science Fiction and Fantasy class, I read a pile of novels in the genre I plan to spend the rest of my life in, and learned what makes them tick, and what makes them successful. In my two survey classes, I conquered an intense range of literary history, picking up authors’ stylistic choices and intents along the way and adding it to my own writing repertoire. This understanding led me to successfully design an anthology of the wilderness in American literary history, and compose a lengthy comparison of themes across nearly a dozen Shakespeare plays. In Literary Theory and Writing, I became acquainted with six literary theories that, once I learned, found their way into essays and thinking in all classes afterword. I was a writer when I entered St. Norbert, sure, and I was absolutely a diligent and creative thinker, but there was still so much I didn’t know. It humbled me—to gain better versions of skills I thought I already had, like replacing leather armor with solid steel.
These skills brought me new strength, made me feel as though my time was really well spent here between the walls of my English classrooms. As a thinker, I am both eccentric and precise, sparing no detail or organization from both my pre-writing and my work. As a writer, not even the most rigid of literary theory could beat the imagery and prose out of my typing fingertips; I will always strive to be witty and whimsical and lush with my words. When I’m forced into academia, I make sure to get the job done there, too—I’ll have laser eyes on the rubric requirements, spill well over the minimum page count because there is always so much to say, and keep my central idea alive and well-fed until the conclusion. As a perfectionist with anxiety and a tendency to work hard and fast, I’m the kind of student who will turn in an essay two weeks early and five pages too long. Being a college student has allowed these habits to have almost four years to further mature under the nourishment of my professors, and I’ll likely and thankfully have them for life.
I want to take a separate moment to express my sky-wide gratitude for the small but mighty creative writing program on campus, which deserves its own paragraph and shout-out. I’ll be forever bitter that only two fiction-writing classes were offered to me during my time here, because they shaped and molded and hacked away at my writing like no others. Fiction Workshop and Advanced Creative Writing, both taught by literary wizard Laurie MacDiarmid, were the places I learned how to write clean and concise, chop the unnecessary metaphors and wordy dalliances, and find faith that I really had a shot out there in the big wide world of fiction. I will never forget the love shared with my characters and I.
And just as valuable as my eye-opening classroom experiences were my extracurricular opportunities to add flourish to my writing career before it even really began. I joined the Graphos literary journal and ended up as its co-editor in fall of 2017, which became my first real experience as an editor and publisher: a career I would love to pursue. I also climbed on board the Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society that fall, and was invited to present my short memoir “Skylark Drive” at the national convention in Cincinnati, Ohio. I’ve had more than a dozen short stories in Graphos, won the first-place SNC Literary Award for fiction twice out of my three years here, and received second place for a psychoanalytic essay as well. The Literary Awards also granted me two scholarship awards for excellence in writing, which was an honor I will never be able to wrap my head around. On top of that, I published my first novel, Messengers: Water & Earth, in December of 2017, with the support of my professors and peers. Perhaps I would have remained a writer had I not come to college, but I doubt I would have had the chance to earn credibility for my creative works the way I did through these programs.
I have also been grateful for the job opportunities that came my way as an English major. I had the chance to work as a Writing Center consultant for my last three semesters, and a Publications Associate at the Office of Communications this past fall, where I got to work hands-on with the St. Norbert College Magazine. Perhaps I don’t see myself as a teacher/tutor or ever working in non-fiction, but the experience is nonetheless incredibly helpful for my future job-hunting. I would like to express warm thanks to Laura Neary, Susan Allen, and my academic advisor, John Pennington, for giving me the chance to add a few more building blocks to the admittedly-short job history in my resume.
Still, I have to admit, I remain with some of the skepticism I came in with. Yes, this degree and its consequential opportunities have helped me fight through the thicket of the amateur writer’s world, but was it worth it to come into a program with only a handful of classes designed specifically to help me as a fiction author and not just an English scholar? In truth, this is not a question I’ll ever be able to answer. My experience in the creative writing sub-field here has given me much to work with, and the English faculty has encouraged critical thinking and problem-solving that has tightened my academic work, but I wish the program offered more help for students who are serious about a creative profession. I do not plan on moving on to graduate school, and I regret that I wasn’t able to take specific classes on character development, or marketing in the publishing world, or what goes into a successful novel. I understand that I can learn much of this by studying literary canon, and I understand that it is difficult to offer such specific classes in a small liberal arts college community, but if there is a “creative writing” emphasis for us, there should be more emphasis on creative writing—not just two required classes.
To conclude, my bittersweet feelings are endless as I come to the end of my English degree. It’s been three and a half years of trial and frustration and victory and push-push-pushing to make my work the best it can be. In some ways, I’ll never understand the field of academic writing or how to be spiritual and enlightened the way St. Norbert has always stressed—but I’ll admit, I have to give a pat on the back to the person I’ve become along this tricky road. St. Norbert’s English major has made me mindful and professional, analytical and persistent in my ideas: and it’s taken me out of my high-school illusions that I can bring my dreams alive alone. It’s just as I said in my portfolio from English 305:
I have learned to enjoy the gears and mechanisms of the English major: the analysis, the craft, the persuasion. I have decided that writing great literature is often a consequence of reading great literature, and discovering what is within that great literature, and analyzing it for what it holds deep down in its bones… Seeking what lies deep in the heart and soul of great literature provokes similar heart and soul within yourself, and can allow new ideas and new stories to spring forth from you.
I meant that, and I don’t take it back. I’m here, and I’m growing, and when I graduate this December, I am going to go on and write stories no one has ever dreamed of before. And I could not have done it without the worlds of support and enrichment I found in my nine English Major classes. Maybe I don’t need this degree to write books, but I think I needed this degree to write the kinds of books I can be proud of in the real world—not just the cynical fantasies in my head.
So, welcome to the portfolio of my time here: the collection of classes, essays, and creative works I’ve accumulated. I hope it gives further insight to the writer I was, the writer I am, and the writer I want to be in the years to come.