Pick a life, any life

It’ll take me a few beats, but I assure you: context matters. Because though by many measures how I came to study creative writing in college seems pretty straightforward, the truth is that I wrestled with the decision to do so at several points.

And that wrestling must be taken into account when I’m climbing onto my high horse and about to pass judgment on said creative writing program. Put simply: it helps create the picture in its entirety. And without it, well, I fear I’d come across in ways that I feel would be inaccurate.

So let’s start here:

My father was a police officer and a farmer while my mother worked at the county clerk’s office. One of my grandfathers owned and operated a sign painting business. I’m still really hazy on whether or not that business “did well”. Given that it was a small town, it seemed like he could’ve had the market cornered. But, also, the flipside of that coin says that it’s possible that the work wasn’t as valued as it would be today.

My other grandfather worked for some time at a dental office (as an assistant of some kind, not the dentist), while also farming (the land that my father would also come to farm). Each of my grandmothers largely took up the tall task of raising their five children.

As the father of one child, I have no idea how either of them had the strength and wits to parent five each. Though, I remember now, one of them—the wife of the sign painter—did work as a bank teller for a stretch.

That’s all a long, detailed way to say this: I do not come from money.

Land ownership is not a part of the equation to skirt past without special mention, because that can be quite important in the U.S. when it comes to evaluating wealth, but I assure you: I did not grow up in some immaculate three-story farmhouse. Nor did my family’s farm net huge profits. I didn’t, and it didn’t.

At the age of eighteen, I didn’t stumble backward into a trust fund. No, by then, the most money I’d had in my possession was maybe $3,000, and that was directly following a summer of working two jobs.

And, if money isn’t something you’re used to having, you know that money impacts each and every decision you make. In many cases, it’s all you think about.

Needless to say, I was nervous about the idea of applying to college. I didn’t know how expensive it really was at the time. But I knew that it was expensive. And I knew that neither I nor my family had the money to pay for it outright. To attend, I’d have to take out loans. Which, as I assume you’re aware, doesn’t make me special.

But honestly, I didn’t know if I wanted to go to college. Didn’t know if it was for me. Didn’t know if I could handle another four years in the classroom, or more.

What would I do instead? I had no idea–and that was the biggest problem. I just had no idea what I wanted to do. I was eighteen, after all. A baby. And until maybe a month before I graduated from high school, I hadn’t given it much thought at all.

As I saw it then, these were my options:

  • College. I was sick of academic learning, yes, but I’d been a good student my whole life. Obedient. Curious. Eager to learn. I had the grades. But I had no allegiance to some school, to any school. And I wasn’t sure what I’d study if I went. More on this in a moment.
  • The United States Marine Corps. My father had been in the marines and so had my brother. I’d been raised with at least some brushstrokes of USMC influence. I’d also been to Camp Pendleton to watch my brother’s graduation. The ceremony of it all, if you’ve never had the chance, is quite impressive. But then again, it was 2008. My brother had spent over a year deployed in Iraq, and it had left its mark on me and my family. If I were to enlist, it likely meant the same and I deeply feared every part of that.
  • Community college. There was a community college 25 minutes north of where I grew up, and another 45 minutes south. I had access. And, I had fears. From what I could gather by merely looking around my hometown, the majority of those who’d opted for community college didn’t leave. They didn’t treat it as the launching point for, say, a bachelor’s degree, but rather as the launching point for their career in a trade popular in the area. I did know that I didn’t want that, to remain in or near Hart, Michigan—that’s no disrespect to Hart, or to those who have stayed, only to say that I feared that if I didn’t leave the area then, at eighteen years old, that the odds were good that I’d be there for at least a while longer, while my closest friends all did go away to a university (many had applied to several schools and the acceptance letters were rolling in).

And that was it. Those were the options I thought I’d had. I can sit here today, fourteen years removed, and say that I wished I’d had the confidence to discover and truly consider a fourth option. That I could sit still, that it was okay to do so. That I didn’t have to make a decision at that time. That I could take a year. Live with my parents. Work a job. Save some money. Use that money to travel. Maybe pick up writing along the way.

I really wished I had. And, I wish that I’d had a friend or mentor that could’ve helped guide me in that direction. But I don’t think I did. And if I did, I think I was blind to them. Or, rather, that, even if I could correctly identify that person, I didn’t know how to ask for help.

All of that in mind, here’s what happened:

One day, I told my mom that I was seriously considering enlisting in the United States Marine Corps. She listened and we went about our day independently. It might’ve been hours later, or days, I don’t remember, but shortly after I said that she sat me down at our dining room table and very softly told me that she didn’t think that’d be a good idea. She didn’t go into many specifics as to why, and I didn’t ask, because that was all I needed to hear, really–I needed permission from someone else to view that option as unsuitable.

I remember her asking me if I’d looked into any colleges. I hadn’t, and told her so, and she went on to tell me, essentially, to go ahead and start looking, and that I should try to find something that I love. She told me that we’d figure the financial aspect of it out somehow.

It was great. She was great. Is great.

Within a week or two, I received a mailer from Grand Valley State University (GVSU) wherein they listed all of their offered programs. GVSU was about 75 miles from my hometown. People from grades ahead of me, I knew, had gone there. Within the area, the school had a solid reputation. And as I perused the mailer, I honed in on what they called their Film and Video Production major, and ran with the idea of becoming a screenwriter.

As mentioned in a previous post, to this point in my life I’d written one short story. That was it. All other school-mandated writing had been of the five-paragraph argumentative essay variety, or book reports or whatnot. So, was I picturing myself as a screenwriter because I had experience and knew for a fact that I liked doing it? Hell no. I was what my teachers and classmates considered a good writer. And it was movies, not books, that had hooked me as a kid into the power of stories.

That’s all this idea was running on.

Did I look into whether or not that program was a quality program? No. Did I ask anyone about what students who complete the program go on to do? No.

I saw this major, and when I flipped the mailer over I saw that GVSU was hailed as “the best budget university in the Midwest.”

Oh, so it’ll break the bank, but it won’t break it as badly as University X or University Y?


Did I spend any time verifying the “best budget university claim” claim? No. Will I now? No. Because it isn’t all that important. What is important to understand is this: by failing to put actual time and actual effort into my future, I was setting myself up to make a poor investment.

I applied, declaring from the jump Film & Video Production as my major. It was the only college application I submitted. Some weeks later, I was accepted. In celebration, the open house my parents threw for me upon graduating high school was film-themed, with cardboard movie reels as centerpieces.

The setback of changing majors

You’re probably already well aware of this: financially speaking, attending a four-year university in the U.S. is, well, absurd, even if you’re attending “the best value in the Midwest”. The cost is absurd, yes, but more absurd to me is the cost in relation to the lying that’s involved. Let me explain.

Growing up, I felt like I consistently received two messages that bled into one another: 1) you can be whatever you want to be. And 2) the place to get you to “whatever you want to be” is college.

And then, at least for me, the message when I got to college started to change. It became far less about “we’ll get you where you want to be” and more about, “college is the place to explore you,” or, “college is where you find your way.”

Like you aren’t whole. Like you’re missing something. Like you’re lost and college is your compass.

Maybe those aren’t outright lies. You can, of course, explore many things outside of your career path while in college. You can find your way socially, intellectually, spiritually, etc. But, for me, it’s hard not to think back on all of it and have the mentality of:

“Oh, really? And how is that?”

Because look, when you don’t come from money and tuition alone (excluding room & board) is going to cost you $20,000 to $30,000 per year, or more, you sure as fuck don’t treat it as a time to explore you. You treat it as the investment that it is. You treat it as the place you come to get good at what you’ve already chosen to do.

And you understand that while you aren’t the one who sets prices, you do control one crucial variable: time.

No, your goal is not to explore, to casually meander in order to find enlightenment. Because to explore means to spend more time, and to spend more time means to spend more money.

No, you don’t explore. You hustle. You hurry. You get out out fast, in as few years as possible, and in the straightest path. No, you don’t explore. You don’t find your way. You focus.

Which is why halfway into my first semester at GVSU I changed majors, from Film & Video Production to Creative Writing. You see, I’d made an error. You know how in the previous section I mentioned that I hadn’t reached out to anyone with questions about the program?

Yeah. About that.

It turned out that in the program’s entirety there were two screenwriting courses. And that was it. The rest was film theory, filming techniques, editing, photography, etc.

Which, fourteen years removed, sounds wonderful, honestly. But for me back then, upon learning more details about the curriculum, I was met with panic. I wanted to be a screenwriter, not a key grip, not an editor. And that’s what I was paying this institution to teach me how to do: write scripts. So not only would I only have two courses over the span of four years to do that, but I’d already wasted money on the two film courses I was taking, which only applied to this particular major.

And finally, after nearly 2,000 words…(many thanks for sticking with me this long) Enter: the Creative Writing program.

GVSU’s Creative Writing program at the time offered four different disciplines, two of which students would choose to “emphasize” in: fiction, creative nonfiction, drama and poetry. So, no, technically speaking screenwriting was not even offered. But, the drama discipline—though it focused almost exclusively on writing for the stage—promised to consistently teach me far more about what it would take to write for the screen than the previous major would.

The funny thing is that I didn’t take a single drama writing class at GVSU. It’d only take me a semester, and an introduction to one professor to inspire me to rethink my path–yes, that’s right, to meander, albeit not too casually.

End of article

Read the Rest of the Series

Where My Creative Writing Program Has Fallen Short, Pt. 2
Criteria for judgment.
Where My Creative Writing Degree Has Fallen Short, Part 3
Facts are facts.

How My Creative Writing Degree Has Served Me Well
Holding that expensive piece of paper up to a different light.
Why Being a Writer is Pretty Great—an essay
A dash of optimism.
Why Being a Writer Sucks—an essay
A dash of truth.
Would I Send My Daughter to a Creative Writing Program?
“Do you have time for a few questions?”

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