I’m receiving my degree in about a month and I’ve been done classes since around Christmas, so this last essay I wrote has been kicking around in my head a lot. The assignment was to write a letter to myself from when I first started this school program. What resulted was probably the most brutally honest self-analysis I ever wrote. I tend to hide when I write, it’s probably why I’ve been gravitating towards speculative fiction as of late. I think there’s a kind of charm to this kind of essaying that I’m totally missing out on writing science fiction and fantasy; don’t get me wrong, creating political parables and inputting my own fears and insecurities into futuristic worlds is a lot of fun, but there’s an outlet to just opening up like this I feel like I’ve been missing out on over the past few months.
You don’t recognize me, do you? The grey along the side of my hair is a little more pronounced, the crow’s feet along the side of my eyes sink in a little deeper, and the stubble along my cheeks and down through my neck’s coming in a little thicker now. But I recognize you: I know where you come from, I know what you’re dealing with, and I know where you’re headed. Things have been hard and nothing’s been making any sense but most 22-year-olds have stood in the same position you’re in right now and you’re well on your way to clarity.
Academia didn’t treat you the best, did it? You worked hard, you studied and tried to understand, but you could never place where you would apply which Greek myth had an ivory shoulder, how the stratification ladder affected society, or why the parliamentary system of government works better than the presidential system. Abstract concepts and theories were interesting and all, but outside of writing it never seemed relevant to a world where the job markets are based on experience and business knowledge and the only value you can measure yourself against is how much money you’re making. Where you stood in academia, the piece of paper saying you know something was never leading to money.
The anarchist side of your brain screams that money shouldn’t be the value to measure yourself against. And it’s true, money only earns you so much happiness. But, no one takes the broke anarchist with bad tattoos very seriously. You’re tired of feeling stupid, feeling like a screw up, and feeling like you’ve been left behind while the rest of the world moves forward and makes something of itself. Worst of all, you want to say they all sold out but they’re in better, more legitimate places than you’ve ever been. You always talk about creating social change, but nothing will change if you keep working retail and gas station jobs.
You’ve already realized this, I know, and that’s why you’re giving school another shot: this time with more direction and an end goal in mind. It’s funny though that you decided on journalism as a career. You never saw yourself as a journalist, you didn’t even see yourself as a writer. You remember mentioning a few times in high school you thought about going to university to be a writer. It was a last resort because you knew you didn’t have the skill to go to music school. Your teachers told you that your essays were really good and you had a knack for writing good arguments, so somehow finding that career path as a writer seemed to make sense, but only because music may have not been an option.
Remember when you went to your high school guidance councillor, the one who was supposed to have all the information about all the college programs that were available? You sat in his office, it was barely after lunch and you could already smell the hooch on his breath. His white beard was scragglier than usual and he pulled up your file on his computer. He asked what career goal you had in mind and you mentioned becoming a writer. Remember his response?
“If you really wanted to you could just get an English degree, but I wouldn’t waste my time on that. Have you ever considered the trades?”
It’s not that you didn’t have the marks or the obvious aptitude for university and becoming a writer, but the high school you went to not only immediately wrote off academia, it wrote you off too.
Whenever you hear about the people you went to high school with, it seems like all the girls became nurses and all the guys found some sort of trade. Finding someone you went to school with that went into the academic or art stream was very rare. An entire graduating class convinced all that’s available to them in the world is manual labour and the medical field. Both are important, neither fit you well.
I really feel like what that guidance councillor said had an impact on you. After touring and playing music for a year, you gave academia a shot. You tried the liberal arts, sciences, anything that would get you a bachelor’s degree in this or that. Part of you feels like you worked so hard to only wind up with Cs and Ds, another part of you knows that you were completely apathetic and if it wasn’t for your essays you would have completely flunked out. Maybe there was something to this idea of being a writer.
The only job you knew writers had was being a journalist. That’s you really read anyways: a few magazines, newspapers sometimes, and you’re not particularly interested in short stories or poetry or books.
You and I both remember what Doc Brown said to Marty McFly when Marty tried telling him about the terrorists who were going to kill him in the future. Letting someone in the past know about their future could completely alter how the future turns out, and in turn, could create a paradox that could cause the universe to explode. You also remember that scene in Dude, Where’s My Car? when Ashton Kutcher says in a German accent, “screw the universe.” Well, screw the universe, I’m going to let you in on something.
It’s especially funny because this is exactly where you’ve been going your whole life without even realizing it. Do you remember a story you wrote when you were in third grade? It was for Mrs. Irons and she asked the class to write a Christmas story. Everyone wrote the usual what they wanted Santa to bring them and how excited they will be on Christmas morning. You wanted to do something different. You wrote a story about a futuristic world where Santa was captured by evil robots and turned into a cyborg bent on world destruction and only his son, Santa Jr., could stop him.
Mrs. Irons went to your mom and told her that you were going to be a writer one day.
In sixth grade you were assigned to write a story about the upcoming Y2K, or as it was called then, the millennium bug. The other kids chatted amongst themselves and complained that they didn’t care about some stupid computer virus but you saw it as an open invitation to go nuts. You loved the idea of a millennium bug and instead of simply a computer virus that would cause important networks to shut down, you pictured a literal bug being born of a computer virus and coming into our world through the computer screen to destroy everything. You were ripping off Lovecraft years before you read Call of Cthulhu.
Ninth grade was the last short story you remember writing. By this time being in a band was all you ever dreamed about, and in turn, became what you wrote about. You wrote a story about a small time touring band that stops to check out a dilapidated barn on the side of the road only to find it’s filled with nocturnal goblins. The plot wasn’t the best but your English teacher at the time, Mr. Welsher, told you it was one of the best stories that one of his students had ever written. He talked about how you described each member of the band in deep detail, how you smoothly moved through the description as a part of the narrator’s internal monologue rather than just dropping in the description like an abrupt brick falling from the sky, and how each band member had a distinct personality.
Sadly, after ninth grade, writing stories fell on the wayside. High school became about writing essays and your only concern became playing music. You weren’t the best musician, even today you realize that you played hardcore punk for a reason, but your musical work shone in such a different way. Your guitar riffs were always just there to back up your lyrics.
In music, lyrics were always your passion. You would spend hours with your nose in your notebook, scribbling frantically like your pen couldn’t keep up with your brain. Your frustrations, anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fears were splattered across the page for everyone to see and all you wanted to do was scream them to everyone and know that somebody out there gets where you’re coming from. I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that even though music is technically out of your life, screaming your frustrations to people has remained a constant in your life: only now you call it poetry and spoken word.
You’ve always had an aptitude for writing and an imagination that keeps your mind occupied. It’s odd that you’re not that big of a reader. You read newspapers sometimes and the odd few magazine articles but junior high and high school left a bitter taste in your mouth for short stories and novels. I know the feeling of being so sick of those Canadiana “girl grows up in her rural town and dreams of the big city as she comes of age” type story that you never want to read again.
I promise, there are better things out there to read.
You’re going to find better things to read and you’re actually going to be invested in reading. You constantly hear people talking about the great books they’ve read and right now it seems like this unreachable culture that you’re not nearly smart enough for but it’s within your grasp. And your engagement with books starts when you rediscover comic books.
Comics are accessible and easy to read. In a few months from when you read this, you’ll be able to go through whole graphic novels between 30 minutes and a few hours. This probably seems ludicrous to you. Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Eli Weisel’s Night and Dawn (the only books you’ve read all the way through at this point) took you weeks to read. Remember trying to read Animal Farm? Remember giving up trying to read Animal Farm? In a year from when you read this you’ll be able to get through that book in a night.
The biggest shift isn’t that you can finally read at your education level but that you truly enjoy reading. You take pleasure in going through the plot and picturing what the writer’s trying to put forth and finding the rhetorical meaning and universal truths. You never saw a point in what you read before and that’s why you gravitated to newspaper and magazines: they have an obvious point. But you’re going to discover some amazing authors whose vision and point of view will mirror your own thoughts and ideas about the world.
You never discovered writers like this in academia. You never found them idly reading newspapers and magazines. And it will be years until you find writers that challenge your thinking and reveal real human truth to you in comic books. But they’re on their way. And you have to thank your school program for that.
As you read this your goal is to get into journalism school. You were rejected this year because you failed the entry aptitude test. That was a rough week and it felt like the world was crumbling around you. It’s a horrible stereotype to say something’s “a blessing in disguise,” nor do either of us necessarily believe in “blessings,” but in this case I think getting rejected worked to your advantage.
You teach yourself how to be a journalist pretty quick once you’re back in school. You start taking night classes and one of your classmates tells you about the school newspaper: Intercamp. This piques your interest and you eventually go to one of the meetings and take on a story doing what you do best: be an opinionated asshole. You’ll write a piece about Rahim Jaffer’s cocaine drunk driving and cocaine bust and call for him to be made a example that public officials shouldn’t be given special treatment for this kind of behaviour.
Jaffer will get off with a slap on the wrist but you wind up with a reputation for being an opinionated asshole. Your opinion pieces are eventually accompanied by your first few art pieces, more specifically, your band interviews which will earn you your strongest reputation throughout Edmonton.
You’ll start paying more attention to how magazine articles about bands are written and adopt that style to be your own. You figure out how interviews are conducted and what makes a good interview and just go for it. Something that people will continue to point out about your work is that you’re not scared and you don’t hold back; you just dive in.
Music journalism is how you’ll build your portfolio, but as you go through school journalism becomes stale and boring and you realize the pay for the amount of work doesn’t seem to add up. This is where not getting accepted into journalism school works to your advantage.
During said night classes you meet a lot of teachers and other students and you tell them about your aspirations for journalism school; no one will seem to understand why you want to only be a journalist. The journalism program is amazing if that’s the be all and end all of what you want to do with your life. Sometimes you can transfer the skills you learn into other career fields, but the path you’ll take sets you up for so much more than a journalism diploma ever could.
A couple of really amazing teachers will take you aside and point out the Professional Writing program. You’re not one-hundred per cent sure what a professional writer does, but your next semester of night classes focuses on this program and what it has to offer. You’ll quickly understand what these really great teachers were onto when they pointed you in this direction.
All the skills you thought had no use suddenly have a function: storytelling, attention to detail, aptitude for language and structure. Suddenly there’s a career path for these things. And best of all, the program offers a balance between the side of you that wants a career and the side of you that wants to be an artist.
Your next three years are going to be spent finding that balance between art and business. You’ll have the freedom to take short story and non-fiction classes that stimulate your creative spirit, while taking classes on corporate communications and public relations that feed into your desire to not work in gas stations anymore. You achieve this balance and you discover you’re good at it. In traditional academia, getting a C grade was cause for a celebration. A’s will become the norm for you.
While in academia, you never thought that high grades would be possible for you. You’re going to discover that you’re simply a different kind of learner. You’re the hands on, direct application type of learner who needs to be able to walk away from the lecture and know what to do with this information. That’s what the Professional Writing program offers you. You sit down, and the lesson becomes, “this is exactly what you’ll be doing in a job,” or “this is how a story works.” Opinions still exist and conversations do persist, but the education becomes something more concrete and accessible.
And education should be accessible. And the opportunity to find where you fit and how well you fit into there should be easily understandable. You’ll see brilliant people come out of school with a liberal arts degree and a high GPA managing department stores and it will frustrate the hell out of you that the world doesn’t appreciate these things anymore. But then you’ll be grateful that you found your place and you have the opportunity now to show the world that you’re worth more than the hourly wage handed to you.
On March 21, 2005, you realized that your high school had completely written you off and expects you’re only worth your weight in manual labour. On May 3, 2008, you received a letter from MacEwan University letting you know you’re on academic probation and that University wasn’t the right path for you. On April 25, 2009, you received a letter from MacEwan University saying that you flunked the written aptitude test and had been rejected from journalism school. Most people would have given up by this point.
September 7, 2009, you take your first night course in grammar. September 26, 2009, your Rahim Jaffer opinion piece is published. On November 3, 2009, you write your first band interview with Adrian Mottram of Sights and Sounds. On April 21, 2010, you get hired as the Arts Editor for Intercamp Newspaper. On December 10, 2010, you interview Matthew Ian Fox of Shai Hulud (your favourite band while in high school and to this day one of your favourite lyricists) and received your first freelance cheque from SEE Magazine. On April 30, 2011, you’re given your own page in Beatroute Magazine every month to fill with your own stories about Edmonton music. April 16, 2012, you start your first day of interning at Avenue Magazine. June 13, 2012, you receive your Professional Writing Diploma. October 5, 2012, you start your first, full-time professional communications job. Finally, December 12, 2012, you polish off the last 3,000 words you’ll submit for the Professional Writing program, sealing your place earning your Bachelor of Applied Communications Degree in Professional Writing.
If I had told you on May 3, 2008, that one day you’ll have a University degree and a career path while balancing the life of a creative writer, you would have thought I was huffing of ether.
You should have been a fuck up. Everyone up to this point had written you off to be nothing more than a ditch digger with a bit of an imagination. And I wonder about all the other kids who had been written off by educators and authority figures and how many of them will never experience what you’re going to experience. The Professional Writing program is no more, your class will be one of the last graduating classes, and in its place is an academic communications program based primarily on communications theory. And a lot of amazing minds will come out of this program, but losing the option for the other kind of learners is what will bother you. Your story isn’t unique, you’ll meet a lot of people who tried traditional academia and it didn’t work for them and they’ll be graduating by your side.
You’ve always had the talent to get where you’re going, but the Professional Writing program was the only vehicle you knew how to drive to get there. You’ve been through a lot and most options seem bleak, but I promise, you’re going to get to the point where you won’t be ashamed to see old friends anymore. The “what have you been up to conversations” won’t end with “I flunked out of school and pump gas now.” You’ll be able to look yourself in the mirror and like who you see.
A career is great, having a creative outlet is amazing, but finally finding that path that helps you not be a fuck up anymore is what you’re going to value most from your whole school experience.
You won’t be a fuck up forever – I promise.