Sunday, December 5, 2010

What I Learned in College

By Amanda Simays

I knew going in that college would be a growing experience, and sure enough, by the time I left, I’d picked up a whole slew of new life skills. I learned how to whip up an impromptu batch of chocolate chip cookies without a mixer, mixing spoon, measuring cup, or a cookie tray. I’d mastered the art of shaving my legs while wearing flip-flops and standing in dorm shower the size of a welcome mat. But if I could pick the one thing I learned that changed my life the most, it would be the skills I picked up as an English major…a deeper understanding of how to read and write.

Of course I didn’t enter my freshman year illiterate, but college transformed how I thought about reading and writing. I became fascinated with the way I could pick up a seventeenth-century poem, seemingly composed of stale words frozen for centuries on the page, and then by taking notes and writing about it, the text would magically come to life before my eyes, pulsing with energy and possibility. I used to think you did the learning first and then writing second, but in my undergraduate years, I learned how you can learn while you write.

I’ve always kept journals, but in college I developed a fuller realization of why I’m so addicted to the activity. It’s not just desire to have a written record of my life as it happens, but a desire for clarity. When I’m confused about anything, when I have a big decision to make, I always write about it, and somehow the translation into black and white letters on the page makes even the stickiest problems seem more manageable.

I learned that I—and humans in general—see life through stories and make up narratives all the time. This awareness added a whole new dimension to my journal-writing habit…I realized I was turning my life into a story, not just in my head, but in a much more literal sense, translating these random thoughts and real-life occurrences into concrete stories on the page. Likewise, when I set out to deliberately make up my own stories in the form of fiction-writing, I began to notice how, on some level, I was still using writing as a vehicle to puzzle out topics I wanted to better understand. My fiction is never strictly autobiographical—it’s too much fun to explore situations I’ve never been in with characters doing things I would never do—but the stories I write often become fun house-style distortions of the issues that are on my mind at the time of writing.

I still have so much to learn about the writing process and what it means to put words on the page, but I’ve come a long way in the last four years. The act of writing brings me joy for lots of reasons, not least of which being the magical power it has to bring sense and order (or at least a more understandable chaos) to the world around me.

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