Last week we learned that Northwestern alum Karen Russell won a MacArthur “Genius Grant.” Beyond the accolades and prestige, she will receive $625,000 over the course of five years to advance her career.
This news excited me. Russell graduated from our university’s Creative Writing program, which is the same program I entered last week when classes began. She focused on Fiction, and I’m in the Nonfiction track. But hearing about her success struck a chord in me as I embark on a course of study without an obvious professional end.
When asked whether she knew she wanted to be a writer when she entered college, Russell answered, “Yeah, I did. It’s funny, when I’m teaching now I get these kids who are so self-identified, so excited to be writers. And in retrospect I was, too. I thought, at eighteen, that this was my big vocation. I don’t know why I did, but I knew I wanted it.”
With or without her most recent award, hearing that sentiment from Russell intimidates me. She came to this school certain of a "vocation" she wanted to pursue, and now fame and fortune seem to validate her steadfastness. I don’t know what my "vocation" will be. I don’t even know what I want it to be.
The goal of these classes as I see it is to hone a craft. That craft is writing, but I can’t fathom success or even visualize what the professional benefits of these classes are. With time these fears will probably sort themselves out, but the news of Russell’s success forced me to confront another question: Do I really consider myself a writer? Or am I just someone who likes to write and happens to have entered a program with writing in the title?
These questions come up, because writing involves discipline and putting in hours and hours of work on projects that may never see the light of day. Does this discipline come with a label or the business card — writer? Or does this devotion to a craft simply come from being consumed by an idea and pursuing it until you’ve exhausted all your emotional and creative capability?
There are no clear-cut answers, and the news of Russell's success only prompts more questions. But as I search for why the Creative Writing program is a valuable use of my time, I think about them constantly. Russell came to this program with a "vocation," and the best answer I can come up with is that narratives go beyond words on a page. They are everywhere, involve everyone and make life worth living. Telling those stories – the truth – gets me fired up. Whether it’s crafting sentences or cutting video, I love immersing myself in narratives. This goes beyond telling facts as they happened but crafting stories that reflect the emotional truth behind those facts.