October 17, 2016
Grad school is an enigma, the lofty leap writers often take to push their crafts and hone their abilities in pursuit of a (hopefully) fruitful career in words. Tom Wolfe, in The New Journalism, once wrote that people who never served such a stretch [graduate school], will never quite understand what it means to go through it. He says, “I’m not sure I can give you the remotest idea of what graduate school is like. Nobody ever has,” and goes on to say, “just say the phrase – ‘graduate school’ – and what picture leaps into the brain? No picture, not even a blur.”
This past August, I moved out to the Bay Area from mostly generic Midwest geneses to study the ancient art of putting pencil to paper, fingers to keys; telling stories. It’s been two months, and already my resolve has been put to the test. Wave after wave of writing assignments, critical analyses, and books to read coming at me like a literary tsunami. But this is what I signed up for: the blur, as Tom Wolfe calls it.
I wouldn’t call it a problem, but the main thing I’ve been struggling with since classes commenced this fall is what I’m used to, and enjoy having; that being one long, sustained, maybe two, projects going on, with a poem or two mixed in for kicks, at a time. I’ll work on a novel for a week, maybe get tired of it, maybe really ham out on it, and then not touch it for a week or two or three years, and then come back, like a wave myself. But here I can’t do that. Here, it’s one assignment right after the other. The emphasis is on intentionality, focus, and dipping your toes in different waters. Or maybe it’s that the focus is on emphasis: how and why we write? Either way, while the assignments aren’t necessarily hard, they’re tedious, taxing, and, in their innumerable masses, are, to a certain extent, numbing.
What you get is a hefty dose of smallies: 300- to 500-word assignments per class, every week. And, let me tell you, that shit is for the birds. In my grammar class, there is a page-worth of notes due for the Wednesday session, followed by a creative work echoing that week’s lesson due Friday, required to be at least a page. My Craft of Fiction classes have both required short creative pieces (two to three pages [double-spaced]). Along with these are critical responses to the books we read in class, which, in themselves would be fantastic, but it’s never been made apparent either of these pieces, creative and/or critical, should have any level completeness, just to be derivative of what we’re learning. Most of my teachers have actually made a point to say our assignments should, in no way, be complete works, or that they’re not asking us to produce anything final, terminal, or even remotely finessed. Just put it out there. Can we harken back Tom Wolfe’s “not even a blur,” statement for a moment here?
What’s actually blurred are our nervous systems. Now nearing midterms in my first semester as a Creative Writing MFA candidate, I’m starting to notice a pattern that I don’t think I would have if I wasn’t such a devout and deliberate athlete. What’s happening is an exposure of our brains to extreme amounts of stress, which spurs the release of cortisol and other stress hormones into our bloodstreams. Cortisol is the chemical that helps ready our bodies to, say, run from a bitchy bear. Strange to think our natural response to juggling three reading assignments and two craft prompts from the comforts of a plush desk chair or a comfy sofa with a beer or pipe or tub of ice cream (bag o’ chips?) handy would be the same as evading a wild predator out for blood. But the science is there, and that’s what happens. And it all happens in the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobes of the brain.
Dopamine, a chemical that’s involved in creating the sensation of pleasure, counteracts stress hormones in the body. It plays its main role in the brain’s reward system. In a 2014 article reported by Emma Young of the BBC, the author talks about how people whose bodies react rapidly to stress, but who then also quickly recover from the rush of stress hormones or catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol as well as the aforementioned dopamine) are able to better manage their stress. People can actually rewire their brains to enjoy and even look forward to stress, thrive in it. But, you have to be exposed to stress in the first place to know how you react to it or if you’re even any good at managing the body’s chemical responses to it, much the way you have to actually spend time in the sun to know whether you burn or eat avocados to know you’re allergic (tragedy).
Last summer, gearing up for the fall marathon season, I made goals for myself: I decided if I was healthy and determined enough I was going to try and run the most miles I’ve ever run in a single week at the peak of my training, in addition to pushing my personal best in miles for a single month. My high-water marks came in April 2015. That month I ran 394 miles, punctuated by three consecutive weeks of 100-plus mileage. I wasn’t under any sort of contract; there were no sponsors making sure I kept at it. It was a test to see if I could.
A game of Can You? if you will. Avocados help.
To achieve these goals, I had to expose myself to extreme amounts of stress. But, first, I had to break it down. Too much stress at once has a fogging effect. The hippocampus, located in the limbic system (deep middle of the brain), is key in the processing and organizing of stimuli as memories, both short- and long-term. It also helps coordinate and catalog our spatial memories of the physical environments we inhabit. The hippocampus records the sensory data we gather as we live through experiences, based on the chemicals released in response to those same experiences, so that we know, without a doubt, the next time we see a bear in the woods our situation is just as dire as the last time. During stressful events (liked being chased by a bear [or completing graduate coursework, I guess]), the brain actually shuts down any (what it deems) unnecessary activity. This includes memory.
In a 2013 New York Times article, A.D.A.M. reported that, “nerve cells in the brain interpret chemical signals incorrectly,” during periods of extreme stress. Some of these, well, cognitive misfires, if you will, include the suppression of short-term memory logging. Coincidentally, this is the same process that creates social anxiety. Ever forget the name of someone you just met? Boom.
Grad schools want to test student organizational skills in the face of mental exhaustion. They’re trying to kill us. On purpose. Kinda like the bear in the woods (if it’s hungry enough). The same way everyone tells me I’m nuts for running 100 miles or more in a week. “You’re insane.” In a sense, based on the contemporary theories of the brain’s responses to stress, they’re right.
Avocados still help.
It’s like any basic training program where you take an experimental group and subject it to an ongoing onslaught of variables, or stressors. After a while, the experimental group (hopefully) undergoes changes. As these changes happen and are recorded, they become mental markers or road signs, empirical data entrenched in the physical and psychological responses we have to outward stimuli. Eventually, the experimental group reaches a critical mass and begins to break down. Much like when you’re in a room full of new people and you’re trying to learn fifteen different names. Something, at some point, whether it’s Jaheem’s name, or the school Lisa attended for undergrad, gives. But this perceived failure is actually one of the greatest gains an artist or an athlete or human being can make. You begin to understand in what areas you’re deficient and, more importantly, what you can take. Once the data has been collected and the experiment or training program or course curriculum is completed, there are now established parameters of tolerance in terms of sensory deprivation.
Congratulations, you now know the exact amount of shit you can take, down to a quantifiable certainty. In science’s name we pray, amen.
That’s where grad programs are at their most useful. They clue you into the things you can’t deal with, so you can concentrate on formulating routines and practices that you can deal with, unique to your own personal, natural responses to stress. Like running, grad professors give small assignments (training runs) and longer assignments (long runs) that test both ends of the body’s spectrum for handling conflict. It’s compounding. The more you do one, the better you become at the other and vice versa. The shorter assignments build strength in character development, world building, hooking the reader, and ingraining detail in small increments, while the thought needed to expound larger, longer works forces serious consideration toward the weaving of characters and settings to map out believable worlds that retain their continuity. In turn, longer pieces make returning to shorter pieces seem like a cakewalk. The short pieces make us dissect and look closer at what we’re doing in longer pieces, and so on and so forth.
Graduate school is like the athlete’s final push before the big meet or game. For months and months on end, it’s addition by addition; doing more to do more. Then, once that critical mass or threshold is reached in the student/athlete, they’re given rest to recover and reflect. The rest and recovery, in this case, begins the day after graduation.
Say I wanna run an ultra race but have never run more than a 5k in my entire life. The average person would probably be like, “ultra what?” Ultra, here, means any distance longer than a marathon. Believe it or not, ultra races are actually pretty popular. Roughly 65,000 people ran (ultra) races longer than the marathon in 2014, much the way 3 million people sign on to have their hippocampi bounced around like basketballs in a steam bath in Grad School each year.
I ran my first and only ultra, a 50k (31 miles), in July of 2014, and there was some serious misinterpretation of external stimuli going on chemically during that race. I did, however, take second place. Afterward, I ate an entire loaf of cranberry-walnut bread without shame.
To do this, you have to start out small. You can’t just run out log 100 miles without the proper training and exposure. Too many variables to account for. And we already know that, after a while, the brain stops organizing the world around you and rejects important pieces of information. All journeys, even those spanning thousands of miles, begin with a single step, as the ancient proverb reads. Surely, when you started driving, you didn’t just hop in the car alone, and with a Hail Mary, a smile, and a sigh, say, “Here goes nothing.” Like anything remotely important or weighty in life, you have to ease your way in.
Working my way into Grad School began in high school; actually, it probably began in kindergarten or preschool, but for sake of time we’ll contain this analogy to high school. Even as a teenager, especially as a teenager, it’s hard for the body to acclimate to doing strange things, or anything out of the ordinary. You do what you can at first. Then, little by little, you add more and more responsibilities, increase your workloads, and fine-tune your methods of organization and analysis.
So, they dole out assignments in high school that prepare students for college. In college, they assign work that prepares students for the “real world” or for those 3 million of us who secretly love self-inflicted torture, the next level of academia.
These assignments are like mileage. The more you do, the stronger or better or more seasoned you become, primed. Like muscles, for the brain’s capabilities to grow, it must be subjected to stress, it has to break down. You have to think and think and think and think and think and think and think and think and think and think and think until you can’t fucking think anymore, and when you reach that point, you keep thinking, because enough is never enough. More always produces more. In diminishing returns, but what doesn’t? We start dying the day we’re born. But, I digress. This is about writing, after all.
And, this, in case you were ever curious and wondering, is exactly how it feels to round the corner in a race, tired and hurting, and see you’ve still got four miles, or anywhere from twenty to fifty minutes on your feet, at minimum, to the finish. That’s when you have to get crazy. That’s when you have to get insane. You have to call on something that is you but isn’t you. Something that can still function in the world, but impaired, at a disadvantage. You lose something inherent in yourself, at a bio-chemical level. But you have to give in to this new feeling, this new mode of being. You have to let go and trust no matter what tumbles out of the brain it’s going to spit fire and shake the world.
Teachers pound us with assignments, not because they expect us to learn everything we learn; they do it so we learn how to love why we ever ran/wrote/sang/stenciled/walked/lived/breathed in the first place.
Eventually, as with any athletic training phase, you begin to slowly taper off the experimental group. Not so much that you completely abandon your work, but enough for changes to take place, recovery. You record any of the slight or overt variances in the absence of specific variables and note the changes. The same is done with the athlete is done with the writer is done with the singer. You allow your body the ability to repair itself at every level without sacrificing performance, aerobic (endurance) or anaerobic (sprints), and then, once the body’s reserves have been restored, you rear back and let that sucker fly.
I typically use three weeks to taper for a marathon. Writing, I think, will be a little different. It isn’t like writing will tear any tendons or explode ligaments (I hope). But I know the moment I walk across that stage next spring, there’s little likelihood I’ll be reading three books a week and writing two responses for each. Maybe one. Maybe none. But I know that I’ll always be writing, just enough to stay happy, or as Stephen King suggests in On Writing, enough to stay hungry.