I started grad school three weeks ago and am just now catching my breath. It’s mostly been great. It’s great community for such solitary work. It’s the most energized I’ve ever felt from school work (other than two classes I took in college called The Creative Process and The Advanced Creative Process —hey, Penny!). The reading, writing, writing about reading, reading classmates’ writing, writing about classmates’ writing—all super. It’s the most stimulated I’ve ever felt being around so many likeminded, dweeby, creative folks.
But it’s still school. There are still grades and deadlines and work that I don’t especially want to do but have to do. There are still some classmates and professors who aren’t always so warm and fuzzy or imaginative or open. But that’s school. MFA writing programs are in the Understanding Form and Honing a Craft business—not in the Meandering, Soul-Searching Artist business. If Tight Sphincter Academics were characters from Coen Brothers’ movies, Med School would be Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Law School would be William Macy in Fargo. Divinity School would be Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis. And MFA writing would be The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Grad School writing is loose in the context of academics but still uptight compared to independent, solo creativity.
And the funny thing is, I’ve appreciated this new rigidity. School’s reminded me that you need the Heart AND the Head. You need that pure, intuitive, messy gusto and the calculated, incisive, critical mind to tidy up that mess and make the work cohesive. You need the emotional AND the intellectual. (I’m pretty confident with the former and not as confident with the latter.)
It felt serendipitous, then, that, the other day, I came across this transcendent school video of Maggie Rogers. She’s a breakout, 23-year-old, folk singer who’s been on Fallon, performed with Mumford and Sons, and, up until last year, was a music undergrad at NYU. She took a Masterclass with genius guest professor, Pharrell— and WOW’d Pharrell/dumbfounded Pharrell/made Pharrell cry:
I watched the video five times in a row and had to keep reminding myself that this was happening at school. The joy. The freedom. The passion. The discovery. The singularity and the seeking and the frankness, as Pharrell calls it.
And still, Pharrell School is still school. There’s still a vulnerability in sharing your work. There’s still the need to be receptive to others and their impressions of your work. There’s still criticism—although none here for Maggie Rogers.
I’m slowly becoming more comfortable with that vulnerability of sharing. I’m slowly becoming more aware of the nuances of the medium. This transition back to school brought me to a poignant line from Ray Bradbury: “The writer has put into himself enough grammatical tools and literary knowledge so he won’t trip himself up when he wants to run.”
Over the next three years I’m ready to trip, stop myself from tripping, run, crawl, pass out from heat stroke, sprint, trip again, wipe out, and hopefully run some more. Avoiding tripping and running aren’t the same practice—but they’re both practice.