When describing the Stony Brook Southampton campus to friends back home, I tell them it’s more like a hippie commune than a traditional campus, with more empty buildings than occupied ones. And seemingly more deer than actual students, without the annoyance of dubstep-filled floor parties, but also without the comforting buzz of voices in the hallway. It’s the perfect place to write, isolated, surrounded by nature and very laid back.
Then I went off campus for the first time. Everyone in downtown Southampton was wearing white, with pastel hoodies draped over their shoulders and cotton boating shoes on their feet, as if they had just jumped off their yacht to buy a ten-dollar coffee or some organic, artisan fudge. My boyfriend and I whispered about how out of place we were, and I was sure the townspeople knew I was one of the new, weird writing students just by looking at my eyeball-shaped purse. I was convinced that I’d feel much more at home when classes started. After all, writers are said to be a little on the kooky side.
I had assumed that since I was on a campus filled with artists, that my floor-length dresses and “Black Velvet” lipstick would be right at home. Having attended two different colleges prior to pursuing my MFA, I was used to my peers and even teachers commenting on my wardrobe, and yet the “it’s not Halloween yet” comment in my first class of the semester still took me by surprise. The speaker hadn’t said it mean-spiritedly, and I wasn’t offended, but it was still startling.
During a mixer, one of my peers asked me, “Do you write vampire stories?” followed by “Do you write stuff similar to Fifty Shades of Grey?” My answer to both were no. Coming from a journalistic background with fiction role models of Thomas Hardy, Robert Cormier and Margret Atwood, I had never read Twilight or the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, let alone tried to emulate them for class.
What I was faced with was my peers assuming I wrote uninspired fan fiction solely based on my appearance. Knowing this terrified me. I felt boxed in, having to present a piece in front of my classmates filled me with anxiety, causing me to question what they expected me to my write, what I wanted to write and what I should be writing.
When I was assigned selecting and presenting on an “on writing” text, I selected On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, not because I enjoy gory, horror books, but because he started out as teenage journalist and then transitioned to fiction, much like I am trying to do. Still, I second guessed my choice, debating staying up all night to reread The Elements of Style instead.
In one of my classes, I discovered my love for microfiction and dark, unexpected endings. My stories had always been a little on the dark side, but more George Saunders and less like the death-filled, fairytale-esque pieces I was turning in every week. Despite one of my peers saying, “I remember when I used to dress edgy too,”I was loving my new, darker pieces, and I was getting great feedback during workshops.
After reading a short story I had written with a headstone engraver protagonist, my boyfriend warned me that my pieces were becoming a little cliché, and I wondered if my material would be considered such if written by anybody else.
A month into my program, and I feel more inspired than I can remember, writing at least two pieces a week and with the goal of submitting at least three pieces for publication each month. I’ve discovered that being a bit of a stereotype isn’t a horrible thing, and that I can indulge my real-life interests of ghosts and cemeteries in my fiction now and then, but that doesn’t mean it defines me, and it doesn’t mean that I’ve never written anything else.
I’ve also learned to not be so sensitive to my peers’ jokes, realizing that most of them just meant to start a conversation. I went into my MFA program expecting everyone to subscribe to the commercialized idea of weird writers in long billowy dresses, forgetting that outward appearance have no bearing on creativity. I can wear all black and write about pleasant childhood memories just as well as someone wearing J. Crew can write a murder mystery.
Nicole Hebdon is a writer with a penchant for alternative fashion, anything fairytale related and literary fiction. She graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh with degrees in magazine journalism, multi-media journalism and communications, and is currently pursuing her MFA at SUNY Stony Brook. She is the former creative director of DoNorth Magazine and former managing editor at Strange Beauty Magazine. She has been published creatively in Cyberrriot, Images, Zplatt and “A Celebration of Young Poets.”
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