While still an undergraduate student, I took a class that explored the intricacies of essay-writing. It wasn’t, and was indeed much different, than the GEW courses many first-year students take to help them build a strong foundation for crafting essays throughout their college careers. And in fact, I had transferred over to a four-year university after completing my general education requirements elsewhere.
I benefited a great deal from taking an essay course, as a student and as a writer. But strangely enough, what continues to make me think from it, even years later, was a single moment. It was when my Literature & Writing Studies professor for the class confessed to sometimes going out of her way to have an adventure, as a means to stock up on creative material The odder or wilder the experience, she stressed, the more possibilities got generated for various types of works (from short stories to whole novels).
Of course, right afterwards my professor asked everyone to write a mock essay within the next 1o minutes. I cannot remember what the essay was about. Its topic has gotten lost in the stream of the countless written assignments.
But my professor’s words regarding her means of looking for creative material stuck with me. I’ve reflected on them over the past few years, almost as if they were fragile seashells or baby birds. As things of beauty with some inherent truth for me to grasp. At the bare minimum, they are solid advice for any writer—because first-hand experience often makes for the most realistic writing, particularly for writers who are just starting out in the field.
Yet one thing did bother me. It could easily get misinterpreted that a writer must venture to somewhere far away, to somewhere exotic or unusual perhaps, to find creative material. That wasn’t want my professor had meant, I know, and so I want to elaborate on it a bit here.
I believe writers must be inherently curious. We have a whole world around us, and in our heads, which we want to understand or reveal from fresh angles for readers. Those fresh angles are possible in even the most ordinary-seeming places that can easily get taken for granted. We need curiosity mixed with thoughtful observation.
For example, while attending Palomar College back in 2007, I took to wandering around campus between classes. Back then the campus was much smaller (condensed might be the better term). But it still made for good exercise, and I soon discovered that any number of events or festivities took place there on any given day. Many of these activities were things it would have been easy to miss if someone always stuck to the library, the student union, or one of the other buildings (even though things did happen in each one of those places as well).
One such event was the Concert Hour offered on Thursday afternoons, something I found out about when I happened to walk past a sign advertising for it amid Palomar’s maze of buildings. The first show I got to see featured songs from China, complete with past music students dressed in the traditional attire and playing the appropriate instruments. It was beautiful, and I wound up coming back many times afterwards.
Another place I would frequent was the arboretum. Some students, it surprised me to hear, didn’t even realize that place existed right there behind the library. They might pass the forested area each day while walking to campus, yet they missed its vine-covered archway. However, the arboretum was, and only continues to be, a wonder to walk around and behold. It has yellow-bamboo, numerous types of palm trees, and a perfect vantage point from which to gaze out across the campus and all of San Marcos. Ah, I can remember sitting up at the first top, having my bagged lunch, and imagining what San Marcos must have looked like without all the roads and buildings. It was peaceful up there. I even got to volunteer for the arboretum for a while (an experience I would recommend for anyone).
One other place desires mentioning, however. At one point the observatory—which now currently stands beside the library—had more of a central location on campus. Just by chance, one day I was wandering around campus when I happened to see the observatory doors open. A sign posted nearby was advertising for a Halloween-themed show, the very last before the observatory closed down at that location for good. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to go. Instead of stars, the picture stretched across the dome ceiling was that of a sketched haunted house, and the few of us who knew to come got to enjoy both a haunted house and graveyard walkthrough. The whole event became a special memory.
All of the above experiences took place within easy reach of me at the time. I didn’t have to go far, and indeed I couldn’t go too far due to mobility issues (no car and tight finances). However, they each offered wonderful adventures, and as evidenced in this posting, they provided memories to share with readers. The saying is true that stories can come from anywhere. They can come from a quiet moments spent with family members reflected upon later by a writer, or by the writer’s personal experience in fulfilling a sense of curiosity.
Writing is a mindful craft. It helps to make anyone who takes up the pen seriously to pay more attention to the wonders of the world, and I’ve learned that sometimes what is nearest and easiest to reach can off the most abundant and heartfelt material for creative writing. It’s something to think about, certainly.