write or wrong turn
My Somewhat Literate Letter To Literary Arts
article by Bryan Smith
I am a writer.
These have recently been tricky words in my life. Usually this phrase manifests itself as, “I’m concentrating in literary arts and political science, with a focus on creative writing… maybe screenwriting, I’m not sure…” or, “I don’t know what my plan is, but hopefully I can find something in a creative field…” Sometimes I just lie with a simple “I’m a biomedical engineer.”
I have always had difficulty self-declaring myself as anything, but identifying myself as a writer is a bit different. It may have to do with the fact that the trope of a hopelessly struggling writer or self-obsessed artist seems to be a pivotal character in most indie films nowadays. It is hard for me to commit to a career that is used as a visual cue to represent aimlessness to audiences.
I think that’s the single biggest thing I’ve had to get used to when committing to the creative job industry: an expected level of uncertainty. This oxymoron seems to have become an unavoidable, yet necessary part of most of my life as a writ—eh—non-biomedical engineer (I’m getting better at saying it, I promise). Even my schedule here at Brown seems to resist any kind of predictability. With shopping and the open curriculum, everyone’s schedule possesses a degree of flexibility. However, the unregistered cart of a literary arts concentrator is the kind of flexibility that belongs to contortionists in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. A schedule dominated by overwhelming writing sample submissions, first day lotteries, and never-ending wait list juggling has caused me to answer the inevitable question “What classes are you taking next semester?” with a smile, an eye roll, and a simple, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Once your spot is secured in a literary arts workshop, the foreseeable unpredictability takes on many new forms. Some say that everything has one answer in the sciences, while the humanities have more complex, uncertain, and subjective answers. If that’s true, then some of the classes offered in literary arts don’t even know what questions they’re asking. The writing workshops I’ve been in have included pantomiming fairy tales and learning calligraphy in order to incorporate it into a screenplay. Sitting around a table as 17 nervous students share a creative piece of work they have either poured their souls into or written frantically 30 minutes before class remains an unparalleled experience for me. I have laughed in workshops, I have cried, and I have looked around with unparalleled confusion at my fellow classmates.
Every writing workshop, despite the wide spectrum, shares an essential structure: a brief apology and explanation by the student of what the piece should have been, a terrifying period when the writing is read aloud and silent judgments are made, and finally the inevitable round of generic compliments before the real critique begins (“Oh I really like how your characters had first AND last names. Very smart choice…”) In a writing workshop there are no tests, there are no grades, there are no assignments—hell, sometimes there is barely a syllabus. Instead, there are just a bunch of kids trying to write something worth reading. It can be difficult to judge one’s progress in a workshop—the “S” on your transcript at the end of the semester isn’t as insightful as one might think—but for a class without much structure or assignments at all, I am constantly amazed by the amount of work that is produced around that small table every week.
At times I try to imagine what it would be like to be a biomedical engineer. I imagine four years of pre-planned courses. I imagine the helpful career fairs. I imagine giving my relatives a concrete answer when they ask what it is I do. I am sure there is so much more to biomedical engineering—but it’s my imagination, so let me be myopic for the time being. A certain life. A predictable life, perhaps. When the “occupation” line comes up on government paperwork, you can fill it out with pride!
I’m sure it’s a great life, but I don’t think it’s my life. There is something about the uncertainty—something about the inability to know what you are doing, should be doing, or will be doing at any given moment—that I love. For me, being a writer is about being told you’re talented on one day, and that you might want to consider another field the next—and consider that a pretty good week. The uncertainty is fun, it’s exciting, it’s scary as hell, and sometimes it can even be comforting. But finally that one moment when something you write actually becomes something. Whether it’s a screenplay turning into a student film or a fiction piece being awkwardly read aloud in a workshop, that moment has a certain feeling of joy that makes you want to keep doing it over and over again.
So when I’m asked, I will do my best to say: I’m a writer… I guess.
Well, it’s progress.