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Writing Woes: What I Learned my Freshman Year of College

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Art by Sandi Shao

Hi Vaishnavi,

After reviewing your application to Under the Arch we’re really sorry to inform you that you haven’t been selected for the staff writer position for the Fall 2019 semester. You’re still free to send us your submissions if you’d like or apply again next semester.

Thanks again for your interest in Under the Arch, and of course, happy writing!

Washington Square News Under the Arch

New York University

I sat there dejected, blinking at my laptop screen at 2:00 a.m. in the morning. I was fresh out of high school, and I had wanted to get a head start by applying to my college magazine. Getting in would have proved that I had what it takes—that I wasn’t just some sloppy high school writer who was only considered good because there was no competition—and I would hit the ground running my first week at NYU. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always work out the way you think it will. Once I had gotten rejected from their magazine, I couldn’t bring myself to apply for a position at their main campus newspaper. Maybe I had been fooling myself all along, and this was my harsh reality check.

Every writer is constantly plagued with these thoughts. We write. Re-write. Make our friends and family go through our work, so we can defend our stylistic choices to them. Begrudgingly, re-write again. And, when we’re finally satisfied, we put it out for the world to see. Then the rejection letters come, or even worse, the silence. Almost like you didn’t even deserve a response. It’s heartbreaking, and rather than push you to work harder, it almost always has the opposite effect and makes you question your abilities. Was the process even worth it? I’ve spent countless nights asking myself this. Why do I fight my family every time they insist that I pursue something more stable? Why do I work hours on an article, pour my heart into it, just for it to get only two views when it’s finally published? Why do I do this to myself when it hurts so much?

It’s easy to spiral every time you get a rejection letter. It’s easy to take it as a sign that you should give up. At least I did. I spent my first semester keeping my head down. I was afraid of applying to more clubs, even ones that could potentially improve my writing skills because I thought there was no hope of improving them. Of course, I still had that hope inside me, as every writer does. I just refused to admit it out loud anymore. I didn’t want anyone to give me a pep talk and push me back into my love for writing—that was something I’d have to do myself.

While I had taken the required English Language and Literature classes in high school, those only ever focused on academic writing and essays. So, I threw myself into the core writing classes I had already signed up for before that awful rejection letter. My professor at the time encouraged us to make our writing deeply personal, no matter what we were writing about. To really care about what we were writing and insert ourselves into the narrative. She told us it was okay to go off on tangents, to break the rules that had been drilled into our heads in high school. Due to our small class sizes of about 20 students each, we spent three hours a week talking about everything under the sun, bouncing ideas off each other and engaging in intellectual discussions. Almost none of these discussions focused on the ‘rules of writing a great article,’ like you’d expect, nor did we ever actually learn boring grammar rules. Instead, we talked about missing children and cold cases in New York and whistleblowers and activists who died for a cause they believed in. We read about the birth of a local dive bar a few blocks away from our class. We watched documentaries about the historic Greenwich Village Stonewall Inn and the AIDs epidemic in the ‘80s. None of my classmates went on to write their final papers on these things, but they took what was at the heart of everything we had learnt that semester and applied it to what they had grown to care about deeply. My writing classes were revolutionary to making me think critically about why I wanted to write what I was writing. They taught me to see a constant trait that was prevalent in everything we had discussed, and made me fit my articles into that bigger picture.

For my final essay I ended up writing what I had learnt about my own identity and culture since moving from India to the United States. It was difficult to completely put all my emotions and experiences down on paper, but at the end of it I was able to picture myself and my identity crisis as a part of a bigger picture that many people experience. I had matured as a writer and as a person, from the time I sat down to write my first draft to the day I finally gave in my final paper at the end of the semester. It was an eye-opening experience to make myself the focus of my writing, when all I had been taught to do before was to remain unbiased and detach myself from my feelings.

Enter second semester and I felt a lot more confident in my abilities. My professor had told me I had the potential to grow as long as I wanted to, which led me to applying to every club I was interested in but didn’t have the nerve to before. I started working as a set designer on a large production, I began to host my own Bollywood radio show with WNYU 89.1 FM and I worked as an on the ground reporter for their journalism podcast The Rundown. I was in the works of re-launching a struggling theatre club on campus. Along with this, I finally started taking classes in the Journalism department.

About two weeks into the semester I got an email from Under the Arch; they had reviewed my application and were asking me to come to their elusive pitch meetings. It was the same application I had sent in before coming to NYU, and I remember spending that afternoon debating whether they had made a mistake and emailed the wrong person. I was a nervous wreck when I showed up to the first meeting, caught between wanting to finally write for the magazine and fearing that I still wasn’t good enough. However, I slowly began to find my place and ended up sending in the final essay I had written for my writing class the previous semester as my first long-form piece to be published. The same thoughts plagued me, what if no one was really reading my hard work and effort? But at the same time, the size of my supposed audience began to matter less to me as I threw myself back into my work, this time approaching it from a different angle than I had before. My writing was now about me, no matter what I was writing about. My work became an accumulation of who I was, almost like an archive of my never ending journey.

Then, right before campus shut down due to the ongoing pandemic, I wrote a short ode to my freshman dorm, which had become my home away from home in the brief period I stayed on campus. I had never written poetry before, the numerous rhyme schemes and verses we had learnt in high school always daunted me, but something had changed. I realised poetry didn’t have to be about rhymes and catchy lines, it was about conveying an experience with the greatest possible depth in the least amount of words possible. A couple weeks after it was published, I received an email with a follow-up poem attached to it. It was written by a group of NYU alumni from the ‘80’s, who had met in their freshman dorm hall and remained close friends ever since, and upon reading my article they wanted to respond with an ode of their own.

I can’t put down in words the warmth I felt when I got that email. Up until then I never believed my writing could actually reach and impact people who I’d never met. My article mattered to people, not just my friends and family. It had touched this group of people in a way I’d never be able to by just talking to them. I realised what I had to say mattered, as long as it was genuine and made me happy while I wrote it. I’ve asked myself what changed since I left high school. I’m obviously a better writer now than I was before as a result of practise and time, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t a good writer back then.

What changed was a combination of a boost in my self-esteem, me realizing my potential, and the breakthrough that came with being able to write about myself whilst still making it relatable. After my freshman year of college, I understood that where I am now says nothing about where I will be in a few months and that a rejection letter means nothing as long as I continue to work towards my own personal goals. There’s no foolproof plan to becoming the best writer and never facing another rejection because it isn’t something you can be perfect at. What matters is finding and developing your own voice and understanding that there is a place for it.

#writing #college #freshmanyear #rejection #self-esteem #NYU #magazine #professor #sophomore #advice #studentresource #application #personalgoals

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