This is the first time I’ve published a piece by a “guest” blogger, which in this case happens to be my daughter Emma! She published her piece initially on the Daily KOS progressive political blog site (click here to link to it), and got a large number of views, recommends and comments, plus a “Community Spotlight” acknowledgement. I’ve posted it below in its entirety, along with some follow-up replies she made to comments she received…
My father turned me on to an article in Psychology Today about a woman named Kate Fridkis and her unschooling experience. After reading it and realizing how much her experience mirrored my own, I was compelled to comment, and encouraged (by my father) to blog about my experiences, here. I use the word ‘abbreviated’ because there’s a lot I could expound upon, but I think this diary sums it up pretty nicely.
After graduating 8th grade at a ‘progressive’ charter school (with mixed results) my parents gave me the option to attend a traditional public high school, to home school, or to continue on the charter school route. I ended up at a traditional school (out of pure curiosity) and lasted through 9th grade, at which point I realized that I was very done with what traditional schooling had to offer.
While I only officially ‘unschooled’ from 10th grade and beyond, I did not go the traditional college route, either. Like Fridkis, I got to explore my interests without constriction or judgment, during those years of freedom after 9th grade. And, like her, I gravitated toward fantasy (and later, sci-fi) writing. I had grown up in a rich tradition of fantasy and science fiction literature, and when I thought about it, had been writing stories since I was a young girl… you know, when I could fit it in.
I ended up heavily involved in online roleplaying communities, wherein I could borrow their worlds and create my own characters; weave my own narratives with other people, young and old, all over the world (some of them I even got to meet, later on). This was my first chance to flex my writing muscles and two important things happened — I got all that lousy writing out the way (that you just have to do when you get started — practice makes perfect), and I learned not only that I wanted to write novels, but that I quite conceivably could.
I had a small college fund waiting in the wings, which I decided was too precious to touch until I was absolutely ready. So, in order to move out, I got a job at a mom and pop breakfast joint when I was 18 (as a server, initially), quickly working my way up to manager. Despite being 19 at that point (I held the job until I was 22), I perpetually had people ask me ‘Are you the owner?’. I have to attribute my poise and overall competency to my unschooling years (when I got to be heavily involved in youth leadership in my Unitarian Universalist community). And I must say, I got a heady dose of perspective working a day job during my college years; truly coming to understand what my life could be if I did not become a writer and did not have a college degree to cushion the blow.
After four years, the job became a strain on my creativity. I’ve been working on a science fiction novel since I was 18 (that has slowly morphed into book one in a Young Adult Sci-Fi Trilogy) and have been periodically taking courses through UCLA’s Writer Program, which despite being labeled as ‘extension’ and requiring nothing in the way of credits (only money), is considered a reputable program. For me, it’s been sufficient college experience. Often, in the course of writing, I have to do a lot of research, and I end up learning a lot of new things. That’s the beauty of the internet — it brings the classroom to you. In fact, the majority of my UCLA courses have been online, with an instructor in Kentucky (whom I absolutely adore).
I’ll be 23 in July. Just last September, I decided to quit the job that nursed me into adulthood and subsist off my fund to make some serious progress on my book. I completed a first draft in less than three months, continuing to study through UCLA, and am now knee deep in the 2nd draft (along with loose planning for books two and three). I’m confident that when I do start looking for part time work again, I’ll have enough done that I can begin the process of querying agents, or at least, be very close. I’m very grateful that I was able to use my college fund in this way… I can’t think of how it could’ve benefited my dreams and my budding career more.
That’s my story in a nutshell. I’m still nervous about the next 6 months, as I watch the money that’s been my safety net dwindle beneath me. But, being allowed to cultivate my own agency has engendered a confidence in myself that keeps me afloat, and I know that even when I look for work again, it’ll only be temporary. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that being able to explore my interests so freely is what set me on this path, and no matter how tough it’s been, working my way to this point, I wouldn’t do anything differently.
Emma’s response to a comment that some science fiction writers don’t seem to be interested in developing their stories’ characters…
It’s so interesting that you bring it up. I know a bit about archetypes, both in character and in plot (I’ll be the first to admit that I’m writing ‘the Hero’s Journey’ with a MacGuffin thrown in there somewhere… chuckles). There’s a Joseph Campbell quote I love (on top of the fact that he coined the phrase that sums up my life philosophy: follow your bliss), which I keep on my desktop and refer to often:
The hero path… where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where he had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.
When I read that it kind of blew my mind, because that’s certainly the essence of the story I’m writing (I know he’s written a lot on the subject). I know about this idea that there are only a few stories that keep being retold. Likewise, the characters that inhabit them tend to reoccur, and often perpetuate stereotypes we’re not even aware that we hold. In this way, stories can be unhelpful (or even, damaging) to our overall evolution… because storytelling is a big part of how we process what life means, what roles we all can play, and how we can be with each other in the world. Speculative fiction, at it’s best, helps us reexamine the human condition, ideally in ways we haven’t before.
I agree with you that it’s crucial to look at fiction, particularly genre fiction, through this lens. Exposure to quality fiction and the analysis of it (and really everything else) is a big part of what writing is… so I do my best to compensate for the experience I might have garnered in a college setting.
‘Character development’ has actually always been my strong point. For all my weakness in other areas (worldbuilding, namely… that’s tough), I’ve been observing and reflecting on the human condition my entire life. People fascinate me, and I’m sure that’s due in part to my parents, who encouraged me as a child to talk about the people in my life, to break down their personalities and actions and understand the motivations behind what drove them. It went beyond that… we wouldn’t simply talk about my friends, we’d talk about their parents and their family dynamics; we’d talk about my teachers and the students they taught and why there might be conflict between them. And to a lesser degree, we talked about the characters in the books that I read. Just to give a few examples.
I spend a lot of time on my own, thinking about the people I know, even just tangentially, trying to piece them together like a puzzle. The more I learn about them (whether or not they know me well or even think much about me), the more invested I am in fully understanding who they are, even if only privately. I do it unconsciously, and as I learned in my online roleplaying days, this grew into an aptitude for creating characters who not only felt lifelike, but stood apart from the cardboard cutouts that many of the people playing with me were happy to inhabit (and that I always found so unbearably dull).
Creating characters and watching them develop organically is the most exciting part of writing fiction for me. I love shattering stereotypes, because I like to think I’ve done it in my own life. And having read much of the YA that’s out nowadays, I can safely say that I stand a good chance of making an impression — I seem to understand people a lot better than many of these budding authors. Not merely what makes people tick, but what makes them compelling, because I’ve spent so much of my life being compelled by them.
Not to toot my own horn too much, though. There’s always so much more for me to learn! But I guess I wouldn’t want you to worry about me personally. I can only speak for myself, but I do feel like I’ve had a fair amount of exposure and I understand the vital subtext of storytelling. It’s my goal to utilize this to be thought provoking, and challenge the paradigms that people have been content with for so long. This also reflects my upbringing — I was raised outside of traditional gender roles, traditional power dynamics, and traditional expectations about my responsibilities moving through society. I guess it’s no surprise that I would have something to say, and storytelling is the perfect medium. I’m confident that my life’s experience will be reflected in the things that I write, and that it’s opened my eyes to many undercurrents of human coexistence that some people never reflect upon. I’ve always been a deep thinker; I guess a part of me hopes to help others break through the surface of their own preconceptions.
Responding to a comment about the importance of the college credential to getting certain types of jobs…
I agree that there are definitely fields wherein a college degree is the best available route, and when trying to find a job, you will be judged and often overlooked if you don’t have one. My dad has a few interesting blog pieces about how that reflects our culture — we’ve come to place a high emphasis on ‘being an expert’ and the pieces of paper that verify it. We’ve also come to ‘consume’ college like anything else, some would say over consume (at least, before we fully consider the consequences of the time and money we’re putting into it).
Not trying to dis college, though… I think it’s lovely idea and it can be a transformative experience for many people. I won’t lie when I say that I do wish I got to experience the social aspect of it, and the general broadening of knowledge that comes with studying your chosen subject (in my case, literature, but I’ll admit I wouldn’t have been too keen to suffer through ‘general ed’, I’m just not the kind of person who retains everything put in front of me, so to study anything that I wasn’t interested in would’ve largely been a waste).
But see, I know that about myself. I have no problem with anyone who seeks out college as the path to their career — my only stipulation is that they get a little perspective before diving in. I know a lot of privileged kids (upper-middle class kids) whose parents put the money aside to pay their kids way. I watch them graduate high school and make ready to go to college immediately, dithering around about their major, or even worse, not taking it super seriously. College becomes route, and I don’t know if they fully appreciate the investment their parents are making in their future.
How can a kid whose never lived on their own, never worked to make a living wage, fully appreciate a college that costs anywhere from 6k-50k a year? (that’s a broad estimate, I know). And for the kids whose ways are not paid in full, who are taking out student loans they may be saddled with for years to come, how can they truly value the money they’re spending when they’ve never had to subsist solely off money they’ve earned completely on their own time? Maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to pour so much money into a degree that may not be relevant to them.
There are exceptions of course, and kids who work while they’re in college… and I truly admire them. I know that the ideal is that they’re able to get a job right after they graduate and start paying off those loans. This is the best case scenario, but in my experience it’s often not what I see happening. The majority of the servers I worked with ay my breakfast job had college degrees they weren’t doing anything with (and I was their boss).
Again, not trying to put down going to college, either as a route to a career or just for the sake of the experience. Not at all. Just trying to advocate a kid having enough of a sense of their own interests and abilities to make that choice for themselves, and to be informed when they do.
My thanks to Emma for letting me republish her thoughts on my blog!
Thanks for sharing your story. I think you have a great career as a writer ahead of you!