The Undergrad Novelist: Junior (Almost Senior) Edition. I Wrote a Novel in College- Let’s Talk About That
If you have been following this blog for any amount of time, you should be familiar with my Undergrad Novelist project, which I started in 2015 (really-really! Undergrad Novelist turned four years old this year) as a means to discuss my experience in college while I drafted several novels, one of which (Chimehour- as usual) I began in 2013. This past year, I published and finished my beloved novel: it’s done well, and I’m almost done with college. Closing doors on both feels very final, now that I will be stepping away from this chapter in my life. In some sense, that’s why this edition of Undergrad Novelist isn’t a list of advice so much as it is the story on why I started this blog at all.
So, let's go back. It is 2013, I am 20 years old, art still charging on my fingertips, but not quite ready for use. I have piled books upon books for a project I do not quite have the shape of yet, so all I do is read, and research, and consume, and think endlessly- unprompted by much except for a sudden, driving desire to create something big and beautiful and unlike whatever it was I made before.
In some ways, Chimehour helped strike the match that led me to college. I had danced around the concept of attending university for a couple years (many of my high school buddies were already on their second year when I finally started), but finances had not been easy to come by, the job market was poor, and worst of all- my local university was in the lurch. I was told at 19 not to bother with a Humanities degree when my closest accessible school was this close to shutting down their English Department. Chancing my time and effort on a novel set a fire in my soul that writing alone didn’t quench. I loved research, I loved writing this way- I wanted more of it.
And I have thrived in university. I have graduated from one school and lived beautifully at Nicholls State, whose incredible English department has been supportive of my every endeavor. I publish in their literary magazine, I have presented at the university’s symposium on a professional scale, and now the academic summit on a state level. I have a whole world of potential just teeming with life, edging right beyond the doors of undergrad. I have not found a dead department and poor career choices in an English major, but the kind of magic that I unraveled in my first novel.
These days, I get asked a lot if I’m a Creative Writing major- I’m not. I did start a History major, but quietly veered into a Literary Studies degree by Junior year, minoring in History and (possibly) French if all pans out. I felt very early on that my college experience and creative fiction were not as compatible as I wanted. Besides, what could academia teach me about being creative that I did not already know?
As it turns out, a lot. And probably more the expected. I finished a novel in my Junior year of college: I’ve written several novellas since then too, the only thing slowing me down at this point being the sheer amount of papers and projects I have to create for the late stages of my undergraduate career.
So, if you can absolutely avoid it, don’t do what I did.
“Wait,” you might say. “Don’t write a book in college at all?”
Well, not if you can help it. If writing gets into your soul and you have to write a book during your college years, don’t deny yourself the chance to do it. But writing a book in college was the hardest thing I ever decided to do. It was a bigger goal than I ever intended on making it, and though I have no regrets about finishing Chimehour in my college years, I do have some reservations about how I did it and what my goals where- though these are, I suppose, reflections you reach after you finish your first book.
Writing a novel, and then another novel, in college was a challenge and I sacrificed so very much to simply make it happen. Some of that drive was built into the idea that was going to run out of time: that nebulous idea of time that you suffer from in your 20s, while some of your friends get great jobs and have kids and start careers. And there you are, sitting around in your pajamas in your childhood bedroom, planning out the latest phase of a novel. What are you doing? You’re gonna run out of time.
It was never really the human limitations of time that alarmed me, but the fear that I would fall behind somehow. This isn’t a new fear: I always felt the pull of falling behind as a homeschooled child, wondering if my peers had some edge that I didn’t (a clue: no). Perhaps if I wrote a book, it would prove I could play as hard as other people. If I studied, and wrote, and did everything absolutely perfect, maybe then it would show through that I was some free-range wild child.
In writing Chimehour, I hoped at least to prove myself just as capable as any college aged-person- probably more than capable, and in the process on doing that, I forgot something so pivotal to my writing, the only piece of advice I will offer for this reflection on my Junior year of college.
In the past five years, while I toiled and fussed and sobbed over a novel, I have also tried to slowly, surely write other things. I have dabbled more and more in short fiction (which I’m discovering I don’t suck at) and more in sharing my poetry (which I might just be good at). I have blogged with Academia and through my own personal space here for what is now four years, and each new piece, I have sharpened my skills with knife-like precision. I felt my writing getting better, but that strength was outside of my novel work.
That’s not to say that my novel is bad: not at all. But in the five years I spent polishing it, I ignored and underplayed much of the work I had done all of this time. I wrote Chimehour at the age of 20 and have grown so much from it since. It just took awhile for me to see that.
It’s been a little over six months since I finished my novel, and my current impression of my work is one of distance. I am so very proud of my novel, I am so proud of the things I did while I wrote my novel, but the world did not end and begin with Chimehour. My writing has only gotten stronger, and who knows what might happen once I finish undergrad. I have scores of books, just waiting to come forward now.
But please, be brave and do what I feared doing. Finish your works but know that a single project is not the end of the world. You can always, always, always write more words.
This has been the Undergrad Novelist: see you for our last edition in 2020.
Caitlin Jones is an author, film editor, and lover of all things Victorian and fantastic. Please check in for information on her upcoming series.