AWACHIE: Staying creative after Yale

commencement
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

This column was published as part of the special Commencement Issue for the Class of 2014.

In the Afro-American Cultural Center, members of my slam poetry team, Teeth Slam Poets, were in the middle of sharing “highs and lows,” weekly reports on our emotional weather. One of my teammates interrupted the activity to voice a concern. What we were doing here, she wanted to know. Were we just going to write poetry for three hours every Wednesday for four years and then abandon it for “real” work? How were we going to make sure poetry stayed a part of our lives, she asked, expressing a deep reluctance to practice her art “on the side.”

Her questions sounded all too familiar. I, the soon-to-be graduate, was wrestling with two truths: 1) I wanted to become a writer after Yale; 2) I wasn’t sure I could make it as a writer.

The decision to pursue a creative career after Yale can be an uncertain one. Yale gives us the instruction, the communities and the forums to create and present original work. Yet students like me, who are interested in continuing our practices professionally, are left without specific guidance as to how to enter our fields of choice. I recognize, of course, that neither our departments nor our organizations should be responsible for leading us to the “big break” that many aspiring artists hope for, but the lack of specific direction offered to arts-inclined graduates caused some of us to flounder this year as we started our job search.

I discovered, however, beauty in the struggle. Within the vagueness looming on the other side of Commencement lies the chance to craft unique opportunities for ourselves — not just for creatives, but for all of us.

My involvement in Teeth Slam Poets has been my most serious extracurricular commitment at Yale. But I never considered entering the professional slam scene. At Yale, I didn’t even feel comfortable calling what I wrote “real” poetry. The kind of poetry the English Department taught in writing classes, the kind that visiting poets read in hushed LC classrooms, seemed to be considered serious poetry. Though I was moved by slam, Yale didn’t encourage me to follow that passion when I began considering careers.

Don’t get me wrong — I think it’s fine, for now, that slam poetry isn’t on Yale’s radar as an academic or professional pursuit. But when I realized I wanted to learn to write fiction and perhaps become a novelist, the resources Yale offered to students interested in this age-old profession seemed inadequate. I was lucky enough to earn a place in the writing concentration, the English Department’s formative, albeit selective, pseudo-minor, and work on a novel as my senior requirement. As I spent several hours per week pumping out pages of my story, I wondered what I was doing here — would I get published? Could I write full-time and also eat in the real world? I meekly posed questions about writing professionally to my adviser, who told me that the concentration would host such conversations in the spring semester. None took place. I grew frustrated with the concentration, criticizing it for encouraging me to presume to be a writer while offering no guidance on how to establish myself as one outside of Yale.

Nevertheless, consumed by an idea for a new story, I applied to work on an independent writing project this spring. Though I had completed the writing concentration, I set aside time each day to work on this new piece. On one of the many afternoons I spent typing in Blue State on Wall, I realized that the true benefit of participating in the concentration was that it trained me in the habit of writing, whether or not I owed a final product to the Yale English Department.

Next year, I will not work as a journalist, enter an MFA program or haunt coffee shops scribbling novels on napkins. I will be working as a Woodbridge Fellow in the Office of International Affairs, attempting to learn more about Nigeria, my family’s origin and the heart of much of my poetry and prose, through Yale’s work on Africa. I will be working in an office from nine to five on projects entirely unrelated to fiction or poetry. But I plan to make my creative pursuits as much a part of my “work” as my day job. I encourage us all to do the same.

Let your work be not only the assignments handed to you, but the creation of radical new things — from architectural designs to iPhone apps to screenplays — that you are uniquely capable of bringing to the world. Yale has not just taught us to how to work, but how to innovate. We have started clubs and erected restaurants and hosted art shows. As we become professionals, let’s develop the stories, products and services that no one else has thought to produce before. Let’s stay creative.

Ifeanyi Awachie is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. She will be reading a poem entitled, “Let’s Commence” at Class Day.

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