When I was about to begin graduate school in early September I marked each of the fifteen weeks down on a calendar, much as a prisoner would scratch the years until freedom into a wall. I’m not comparing graduate school to jail; I’m here because I want to be and while my time has become constricted, my understanding and creativity have only expanded. This was the first way of measuring the semester before due dates, presentations, and other more tangible markers were revealed to me by my instructors. Looking at that calendar now, only two weeks remain. It’s a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned before I hunker down and prepare my final projects.
In the first week we got our syllabi and these helped me to plot out the subsequent fifteen weeks of my life. As one might expect for a creative writer, I was assigned lots of books and articles to read. I wrote book reviews, researched and reported on literary magazines, and learned how to teach composition to undergrads. I also had the most intense workshop of my writing life, where I took a traumatic true-life event and, in the course of the semester, turned it into a completely different beast – a fictional one – by intense editing and complete deconstruction of each draft.
All of these tasks came at regular intervals. A draft would be due every three weeks, a reading response each week. I felt at times like a bunch of crumpled wet clothing turning with the cycles of a washing machine. Though feeling battered at times, there was a definite comfort in the rhythms of my classes and it somehow became innate that I would know what needed to be done by when without needing to look at my calendar or a syllabus.
Thus goes the school part of my graduate experience. Most of us do not have the luxury of just that single focus. I’ve become friendly with about seventy percent of the first year writing students across all three genres and all of us have at least one job outside of school. Columbia College Chicago is really good about helping people find on-campus work, by the way. Add in internships in the writing business, family, and the like, and each of us manages at least three different calendars concurrently.
Outside of developing my craft, the most important thing I’ve learned involves a two-fold strategy: do not procrastinate and build-in time for unforeseen events that will likely occur during a given semester. Most graduate students are ambitious and would not self-identify as a procrastinator, but we due tend to say things like “I can’t focus on this because that is due,” or “I didn’t have the time to finish this.” This is particularly the case when something we haven’t planned for arises. From a change to the syllabus or an unexpected meeting called for work to an illness, the kinds of things that will inevitably occur and will throw a wrench into our plans run the gamut. So, build in time for them.
As I finish up the semester I have many measurements of how the time went. I can articulate what I’ve been taught and I can write much better works. The idea of marking time on a calendar now seems trivial because I’ve learned that we should not want any experience to hasten its departure. So enjoy the moments as they come due; they may be stressful but remember they are accomplishments. I have two weeks left of my first semester of graduate school and while I cannot yet see the light at the end of the tunnel I do see a nice bench under a tree where I can sit and rest a while.