Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Advice to students: write

Crash with large diploma.  In Latin.
I have them for four academic years, sometimes for just one class, sometimes for three or four or a year of research.  I teach them to think like a chemist, to wield the tools of quantum chemistry with confidence and, I hope, a bit of panache.  I turn around twice and they are coming to my office, not to ask about the problem set, or to plan their courses, but to start adulting (as the subject line of so many Crash emails styled it.)

I want to go to graduate school. What do I do next? I’ve got an interview next week, what should I say about my research?  Advice goes back and forth.  What advice, I ask them, should I give to next year’s students about this course, what did they wish they had known before they began?

Turn around once more and they are walking across the grass and up the hill into adulthood.

Some of my students will be itinerant scholars, moving from place to place after a few weeks, month or perhaps a year. Write, I tell them, every week or more.

Start a blog, open up a document in your favorite text editor, by hand in a journal.  It doesn’t matter where the words go, just that they go.

Address your narrative to someone, so you remember to unpack the interior movements, so your words are not amorphous, but take on a shape. Write for your parents, your friends, your future self, your nieces and nephews, sons and daughters yet to be born.

Don't worry about length.  Five words, five hundred. Don't worry about capturing it all.  You can't. Write about the little things as often as the big ones.

Write often.  You'll never write as often as you think, but write when you think of it.  Don't wait for the perfect time.

I think I should have been giving this advice to all my students. Write, no matter if you are on the road, or planted for four years in a doctoral program, or starting a working life. Write often, write with purpose, catch the details when they are fresh.  You will not, I think, ever regret having this door to these days of your life.

And in the end?  Archive it, of course.  Scan it, if you wrote by hand.  Print it out if you did not.  On acid free paper. Either way, put it on the shelf, with a few photos and other ephemera.

It's never too late to start, so even if you are not newly graduated, write! I'm off to take my own advice, traveling to Rome, I'll write. Often.

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