I had always imagined myself as a writer. As soon as I learned to read, I was writing. My aunt, who is a reading specialist for the public school system in my hometown, taught me how to read at a young age, and soon encouraged me to write. Using colored construction paper and crayons, together we would create mini-books, in which I would write stories about superhero cats and magical forests.
Writing is one of the reasons I wanted to pursue an advanced degree. I distinctly remember the first time I had heard about theses and dissertations: I was in the sixth grade, and one of my teachers told the class about his master’s thesis. He said that he had to write a whole book, and that it was the hardest thing he had ever done. Before then, I had never met someone who had written a book. From then on, I fashioned myself as a writer, and envisioned myself as an adult with a job writing for a magazine, or publishing my books. In my eighth grade yearbook, students were required to list their dream job. Beneath my name and picture, I wrote in, “writer.”
Once I was in college and began to seriously think about my future career, I was torn. I had taken many poetry and creative writing courses in college, and loved the field. I spent a summer in Paris during my junior year at a school program that was, essentially, a writing camp in the heart of Paris. I very seriously considered going to graduate school for an M.F.A. in creative writing. But I had also taken history courses in college, too. I loved going to the archives, digging through old newspapers, and battling with ancient microfilm machines in order to find a “story.”
I decided to become an historian. I knew nothing about graduate programs in history, but I knew I wanted to find these stories from the past and make them matter in the present. The craft and art of writing history is vastly important to me. With the help of a few wonderful undergraduate advisors, I applied to graduate programs in history. In my personal statement for U-M’s program (even then my top choice), I wrote about the art of writing history. I wrote about narrative, sentiment, and making hundred year old sources walk and talk. And now, I get to do all of this.
The writing process, on the other hand, is not always so exciting. One of my poetry professors told me to think of writing as a job – not something that comes to you spontaneously and in moments of inspiration, but rather, as something you need to work at and force yourself to do, even when nothing “good” is coming of it. This is excellent advice. Much of what I write is junk. But by making myself write, I develop my craft, and I get better at it. Perhaps most important, I work and re-work my writing multiple times. Occasionally, I need to put an essay away before I can edit it; at other times, I know exactly what must be fixed and can do it straightaway.
Right now, I’m working on an essay that will become part of my dissertation prospectus. I have my pad of notes in front of me, a full battery for my computer, and a quiet space to work (yes, the Rackham Study Halls I wrote about in my last post!). I find that having a set writing space and routine helps me get the most out of my writing time. Here’s hoping that this essay will come easily!
About the Author
Marie Stango, Ph.D. Student, History
Published in: Student Voices