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Holding On to Story as a College Writer

oyan-blog-story-college-pinterestBrynn Fitzsimmons, Guest Contributor

Studying writing in college has repeatedly made me question whether I love writing enough to finish—or even like writing anymore at all. In May, I’m graduating with a Letters/Writing degree. I’ve stayed the course. But I want to share why I’ve had such a difficult time and how to avoid the discouragement I faced.

College almost made me lose sight of why I loved writing to begin with: Story.

As students of The One Year Adventure Novel, Story has been the core of our education. It can be shocking to discover that while there are valuable things to learn in college, Story doesn’t tend to be one of them. I have learned to outline, to write clearly, and to expand my viewpoints, but I almost lost Story while navigating the swirling abyss of papers, projects, tests, quizzes, speeches, and book reports. If I had lost Story, those skills I gained almost wouldn’t matter.

It took a “crazy” decision to do the Other Worlds curriculum in the middle of an 18-credit semester to get Story back.

I don’t regret my choice to go to college, or to study writing. Instead, my experience has made me passionate about bringing Story into higher education as a would-be professor.

So, here are a few things I’ve learned the hard way that have helped me reach this point with my sense of Story intact.

Don’t let a report card define you.

Just because you finished your OYAN curriculum or placed in the contest does not mean that you are guaranteed straight “A”s on your college papers. Writing papers is a new process, and while it won’t be presented as Story in your composition classes, it is—just a different version.

Yes, an essay needs an introduction, a thesis, supporting points, and a conclusion. And yes, sometimes, that can feel like you’re trapped in the prison of Roman numeral outlines. However, papers are also still meant to be engaging (regardless of what certain professors may tell you), and they still have much of the basic structure of a story (beginning, middle, end, theme, etc.). It’s just a different style.

You probably panicked the first time you sat down and tried to start a first chapter, and you’re probably going to panic when you write your first paper. You’re probably going to feel like you have no idea what you’re doing. And that might show up in your grade.

That does not make you a bad writer. It does not mean you can’t tell stories that matter. It does not mean that you will never “make it” in the literary world.

OYAN teaches us that we write to change ourselves first. I hope you did your novel that way, and I hope you write your college papers that way, too. Write to improve. Write to learn. Write to do your best every single time—and then be happy with that, regardless of what your grade shows.

Feed your imagination.

While you may be an excellent storyteller, not all professors are looking for Story. You may find that wonderful English professor who teaches the three-act structure and keeps the wonder in literature classes, but sadly, those professors are the exception, not the rule. More often, you’ll find classes focused on technique, criticism, and systems of literary analysis that can feel like they are sucking the life out of Story.

So put pleasure reading in your daily schedule, too. Go to the library and get a book that reminds you why you love Story. Put your homework away fifteen minutes early, and just read.

Your imagination is a reservoir. Every time you try to tell a story, you turn on the faucet connected to that reservoir, and let some of the water out. If you never put anything in, if you never give your imagination stories to chew on, your reservoir is going to run dry. You’re going to have nothing left, and that’s writer’s block waiting to happen.

Writer’s block is common in college. Don’t starve your imagination on top of it.

Be open-minded.

Just because someone teaches you a different approach to writing (fiction or otherwise) than Mr. S. did does not mean they are wrong. Not everyone likes three-act structure; a surprising number of professors look down on first-person narrative, and a lot of them seem to value technique above Story.

None of that is bad. Maybe it isn’t for you, but it isn’t bad to consider alternative approaches to writing. It’s not wrong to focus on grammar rules or literary device. It’s not a waste of time to outline stories that have no three-act structure or clear theme. It’s not wrong to like them, and it doesn’t make you less of an OYANer.

Story is your foundation – and Mr. S. gave us an amazing foundation that I can guarantee most of your classmates weren’t blessed with—but it’s not the end. It’s the beginning. Hold on to Story, yes. Don’t let yourself lose sight of it or its value. But you don’t want to be a Story snob any more than you want to be a literary snob.

Don’t sit in class thinking you are above learning about metaphor and stream of consciousness and deus ex machina simply because they aren’t purely Story. Learning those things will help you tell a better Story in the end, and isn’t that the goal?

Be realistic about writing time.

Your writing time in college is limited. Sometimes, by the time you write a discussion forum post, an essay, and an email to your professor, you’re very done putting words on a page, and working on your novel isn’t going to happen.

That’s okay.

I have a friend at school who writes about 500 words a day. I have another friend who writes 300 a week. Last spring semester, I outlined a novel instead of writing anything. I didn’t do any creative writing during last semester. I’m doing a couple hundred words every few days this semester.

The point is that you have to set priorities. If your priority for a semester is trying to survive Psychology and turn in papers on time for Classical Literature and nothing else, that’s okay. You are not going to die as a writer if you don’t write fiction for a while. Give yourself permission to set realistic writing goals. From personal experience, I would say that writing nothing outside of school is not ideal, but keeping up with writing can be as simple as saying, “This semester, I’m going to write one short story.”

If you’re one of those people who can do NaNo in the middle of a college semester, good for you. But if you’re not, don’t feel bad about it, and don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it.

If you go to college to study writing or literature, you are not going to get “OYAN Part 2.” You may even encounter some very different points of view about writing. But if you go into it with an open heart and humility, and make a plan for nurturing your soul, you will not lose Story along the way. You will instead become a deeper channel for the Story inside you.

If you have studied writing in college, what did you learn from the experience? Did anything surprise you?


Brynn (right) with staff member Tineke Bryson at the 2015 Summer Workshop.


About Brynn

Brynn is a senior Humanities Letters major/writing minor at Maranatha Baptist University in Watertown, Wisconsin. She is looking forward to where God will take her in writing after graduation, and someday she hopes to teach in a college classroom. She recently realized she needs to get another hobby besides writing, but has yet to find anything she loves as much. However, she does enjoy reading, playing the violin and the harp, and watching Lord of the Rings and Marvel films with her sisters.

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