On Writing Outside of Academia
September 30, 2016 § 13 Comments
By Natalie Schneider Brooks
All my writing has taken place within a bubble. It is either trapped in the hard drive of my computer or resides in the piles of essays I have submitted for classes. Apart from a brief foray into the blogosphere during my last two years of high school and part of my freshmen year of college, none of my writing has left the brick walls of my academic institution.
There is something safe about writing for academia. In this protected environment it is like jumping off a cliff with a bungee cord; it may be terrifying but there is always something there to safely pull me back. At times it feels like writing without consequences. Sure my writing impacts my grade and potentially my future, but I only have to worry about one audience: the instructor. Usually I can gauge what that audience is looking for after a couple of small assignments and predict what I need to include in my work. Combine that with the drafting process and a healthy dose of pestering during office hours and you’re pretty set when it comes to the results of the final project.
In college there is no rejection. Your writing is going to get accepted and read no matter what and as long as you are reasonably competent and put the work in, you can get the results you desire. This is the environment where I first discovered I could write. A freshmen composition class gave me the tools I needed and my first British literature class introduced me to the joys of literary analysis. This summer I was exposed to the world of creative nonfiction for the first time and I rediscovered my childhood love for creating stories. In the classroom, I still have control over my words and I don’t have to worry about setting them loose in the world to fend for themselves.
However, all of that is changing. I have spent the last five years writing within the walled garden of academia, protected by rubrics and guidelines, inspired by prompts and assignments with a friendly face to guide me through every step of the process. But soon, I will graduate with my masters, step out into the real world, and confront the reality of whether or not I can write outside of classroom.
I sort of tried once. I took an undergraduate class about freelance writing. It was all online and I was expecting the same protected space as my past classes, with no external impacts. This was not the case. Part of our assignment was to write real articles that were going to real publishers. It was one of the most anxiety inducing classes I have taken. In the end, I got a good grade in the class and nothing I submitted got accepted for publication. I could remain safe in my isolated college space and ignore the risks of writing for an expanded audience.
It is ironic that I am so anxious about my own writing since I teach English composition as part of my graduate teaching assistantship. In class, we spend a lot of time focusing on audience and I regularly have to remind my students to keep in mind the hypothetical audience for their papers, attempting to manufacture an artificial representation of the real world they will enter after leaving my class. Many of the students I teach come to college hating writing. They feel bad about their ability and they don’t want to reveal their voices to the outside world for fear of rejections and ridicule. Even though several years and a diploma separate us, I see these same fears echoed in my own thoughts.
As a composition instructor, it is my job to coax students along, helping to grow their writing skills without silencing their individual voice. It is a beautiful sight to see them develop their skills over the course of the semester and some of them truly cultivate a beautiful voice as they write. However, to do that, they have to take that first step. They have to commit themselves to the page and open their identity up to be examined and critiqued. My Master’s program has forced me to do this more than my undergraduate classes did. I have had to challenge myself to do more than just write for the grade; coasting is no longer an option. But after the classes are finished and I walk across the stage at graduation once again, will I be able to push myself on my own? Or will I remain trapped, leaving my love of writing locked behind me once again? At this point I don’t know, but I hope that doesn’t happen. I want to continue along this path as a writer. Maybe simply committing these words to the page is the first step.
Natalie Schneider Brooks is a Master’s Student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha studying Rhetoric and Composition. She works as a Teaching Assistant and in her free time coaches for the MavForensics competitive speech team. She also writes fairly regularly on her personal blog Homeschool Alien.