14,471 words later

After a summer of note-taking, rearranging, deleting, and breaking down in frustrated tears, I’ve finally submitted my Creative and Critical Writing MA thesis, an exploration of my family history that blends personal memoir with critical theory.

And with that, my time at Birkbeck is over.

Putting together this thesis was a learning experience, to put it mildly. After realizing that my initial choice of topic (the farm my grandmother grew up on in Maryland) didn’t feel as compelling as I’d hoped, I had to pivot. I ended up using the farm as just one guiding element of a broader piece on honesty and communication in relationships and with the self. Once again, I was reminded that good writing emerges from trusting one’s gut rather than trying to force a conclusion or topic.

While I don’t feel 100% satisfied with my thesis – there’s room for further development – writing it taught me about writing, which I suppose is the point.

At the end of August, I was able to take a short trip to Europe, during which I touched the outside of Birkbeck (the school I would have attended in person, had it not been for Covid). Seeing the actual building, the weight of what I missed out on really hit me – but in addition to acknowledging this sadness, I had to remind myself what a wonderful, strange experience this MA has been, despite the circumstances.

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to explore magical realism and autofiction, two bizarre territories into which I thought I’d never venture. I’m looking ahead at magical realism short story contests and other opportunities to keep my work in these genres going.

And I’ve read so, so much. Thanks to this MA, I have a much broader library of theory and reflection to draw upon in shaping my thoughts and processing my experiences. The more material I consume, the more meaningfully I feel I can engage with others and with myself.

As I’ve come to appreciate over the past year, interacting with the world as a writer isn’t just about putting words on paper. It’s about reading, talking, and listening, and then contributing to the dialogue in turn. This feeling of interconnectedness is what I love about the humanities.

With all this in mind, I have no choice but to keep writing. I’ve relocated to D.C., where I’m working as a reporter at The Cancer Letter. Even though I’m a lot more focused on fact-checking, honorifics, and short, punchy ledes than I was during my MA, I hope to carry the curiosity I fostered during at Birkbeck into my work as a journalist.

Thank you to the RMJ community for supporting this year of incredible growth and learning. The Fellowship is an experience I’d encourage any soon-to-be engineering grad to pursue, no matter where you stand career-wise.

And to all those engineering kids who think English class is ‘easy’ – you’re doing it wrong.

Looking ahead

Hi all,

It’s been a few months since I last checked in. I’ve finished my Spring term and am now onto Summer – which means attending a couple very interesting lecture series and working on my dissertation (AH!). As I procrastinate, I’d love to share a few updates about the upcoming months.

First of all – England! While Birkbeck never opened up for in-person classes, I’m planning a trip to the U.K. so I can go work on my dissertation in a new setting and hopefully meet a few of my vaccinated classmates. I’ve mainly been focused on school throughout this MA, but I know the international aspect of the RMJ fellowship is really special, and I want to be able to benefit from that as a writer and a person. I can’t wait to share updates as my plans solidify.

In other exciting news, I’ve just accepted a science journalism fellowship at an oncology publication in DC – the job will start in September, right after my MA ends. I’m absolutely thrilled. I’ve been trying to figure out how to blend my writing and science backgrounds, and this job feels like a step in the right direction. (And without RMJ, I wouldn’t be here.)

Most importantly, I’ll be a ‘fellow’ for a second time!

Until the next post,

Alice

Writer’s craft and talking cats

I once had a writing professor tell me that writer’s block is a myth. Feeling stuck, and needing to constantly re-draft, are natural parts of the writing process, not some kind of anomaly. The more I think about writer’s craft, the more I agree.

This semester has, so far, been all about the writing process. In the fall, I was absorbing; reading multiple books a week, digesting critical material, writing source-heavy pieces. And now, I’m producing. My classes are less structured, more about workshopping and experimenting than about responding to critical material. While I do miss having lengthy, challenging reading lists for my classes, I’m learning a lot from this more freeform approach. My ‘homework’ is just to write. And that’s hard.

Over the last few months, I’ve been challenging myself to write as much as I can every day. At first, my fingers felt stuck – I was so concerned with the quality of my writing, how it might be perceived by others, that I couldn’t relax. But I’ve been learning how important it is to just write, no matter how bad the writing is. Some days, my writing stagnates; other days, it flows freely. Some of my ideas stick, some of them don’t. That’s just how it works.

In this spirit of free writing, I’ve been allowing myself to experiment with genre. I’ve always considered myself a nonfiction writer because I love memoir and journalism and creative-critical writing, but I’ve realized there’s a lot to be gained from the intersection of nonfiction and fiction. For my assignments this term, I’m playing with fictional elements. Sometimes, autofictional writing actually feels ‘truthier’ than the strictly nonfiction stuff. Working in a looser genre allows me to draw out emotional significance without feeling tethered to a specific timeline or sequence of events. A year ago, I never would have guessed that I’d be seriously invested in a story about a talking cat, but here I am.

My writing is evolving, and this makes me feel so grateful for the RMJ fellowship – I have the time and money to experiment. I’m not just learning how to write, but how to think like a writer, deeply and fluidly. Hopefully I can carry this mindset with me, no matter what I do next.

Virtual start, round 2!

Happy New Year, RMJ community! I apologize (should I say apologise, now that I’m a UK student?) for not posting much last Fall. I’m excited to share now what a fantastic online experience I’ve been having. The semester was a wonderful whirlwind interrupted by a positive Covid-19 test, and I’m looking forward to doing it all over again this semester, minus the frustrating post-viral fatigue.

About halfway through last semester, I realized, wow, this is what I want to be doing. For years, I’ve been mentally bargaining with myself, trying to figure out ways to combine my engineering and writing backgrounds; but having this chance to just lean into the writing, no strings attached, has been liberating. I came into the semester with a heavy dose of impostor syndrome, but now I feel right at home with my classmates. This program just feels – right!

What I love is the combination of creative and critical writing. I’ve never been much of a fantasy or fiction writer (though I did experiment with autofiction this November, and I kind of liked it). I also enjoy pushing the constraints of more traditional critical essay-writing. In college, I found myself drawn to narrative journalism and creative nonfiction, and I’ve been leaning into those genres heavily throughout the MA program (programme, ha). I’ve been practicing the smooth combination of creative and critical; fragmentation; and connecting critical sources that might not seem obviously related. I love this challenge – I think it appeals to my logical side – and I know I want to pursue it more after the MA ends.

And the reading! I probably spent more time during the first semester reading than writing, and I think that was a good thing. My frame of reference is expanding exponentially. I’m just gaining more language, and I’m finding it easier to start articulating things that have always felt problematic, but that I maybe haven’t had the critical background to dig into.

More generally, I think being in this writing MA is a relief because I no longer feel emotionally or philosophically at odds with what I’m doing. I loved studying BME in that I got to explore a range of disciplines (and it was challenging, so I’m proud of that degree). But because I am someone who likes to think very big-picture, aka what is the meaning of this, I struggle with engineering. In other words, I’d rather be thinking about cultural attitudes towards technology that about the minutae of a blueprint or design plan (not that these things aren’t both valuable – I think it takes all types). I also have some issues with engineering culture. There’s an aggressive apoliticism – through I realize that’s changing – as if being immersed in such difficult work excuses willful blindness, even though engineering is inevitably implicated in every system demanding critique. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know I’ve been gaining so much clarity looking in at engineering from the outside. I think I want to stay here.

I look forward to continuing this next semester. I’ll be all online, again, but hopefully in the summer there will be some in-person events so I’ll get to travel for a short while. I don’t feel super comfortable traveling until there’s something non-virtual to go to; and of course, I’d like to wait until more people are vaccinated. In the meantime, I’m loving my Ann Arbor apartment with my roommate and our two cats. Things could be a lot worse.

I feel so lucky to be having this experience, even if it looks different than RMJ fellowships of years past. I’m brainstorming ways to continue my writing post-graduation. Looking forward to making another post once the semester has gotten off the ground …

Alice

A virtual beginning

Today I participated in the first discussion session for my MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of London, Birkbeck — from my apartment in Ann Arbor.

Finding out my program would be starting virtually was disappointing, of course, though I did feel some slight relief at not having to make a massive transition during a global pandemic. Mostly, the switch to a virtual format has made me appreciate the content of my program. Without the promise of exploring London and taking weekend trips around Europe, I’ve had to recognize what this fellowship means to me academically and professionally, not just experientially.

The answer: a lot. I’ve known for a few years that while I enjoy math and science, and value the analytical skills I cultivated during my studies in Biomedical Engineering, I don’t want to be an engineer. I also know that I love to write and read, especially because of the critical, holistic thinking these pursuits demand. I use writing to engage with the world in a way that feels relevant and contemporary. Aside from this, I have almost no clue what I’d like to do professionally. That’s what this year is for — to immerse myself in my writing, and hopefully gain some clarity along the way.

I’m grateful to have this quiet apartment in Ann Arbor, a lovely roommate, and plenty of time and space — both mental and physical — to focus on the content of my program. To be clear, I do hope to make it to London next year, but until then, the best I can do is engage meaningfully with my classmates, professors, and course material. My first class bodes well for the rest of the semester. The discussion seemed to translate well to an online format; my classmates are intimidatingly smart, and our conversation today was rich and exciting. I also started forging some virtual connections-slash-friendships with other students. I’m committed to being as involved in my MA program as possible, even if it is online for now.

The silver lining here is that when I finally make it to London, I’ll have a strong appreciation for the value of being an RMJ fellow. Beyond the glamor of traveling to another country, the fellowship carves out a space for deep personal and professional reflection.

I look forward to posting another update on my first, virtual semester. Until then, cheers.

— Alice