The Grad School Files, Part 1: Interlochen Reunion

Me (top) along with my friends (L to R) Carsen, April, Ruthie, Alana and Edwin in a tree at Interlochen Arts Academy at our ten year reunion in September 2010.

I’m one of those few people out there who, like jocks and cheerleaders, had a wonderful high school experience. I spent my junior and senior year at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in northern Michigan where every student has an arts major. Mine, no shock, was creative writing. Interlochen was — probably still is — the most difficult experience of my life. I was thrust into a situation where I was expected to perform, artistically and academically, far beyond my competence. It was a struggle. I wrote and read and struggled constantly. I did homework late into the night. I had to deal with living away from home at age 16, having my first real girlfriends with all of the attendant mistakes, and being snowbound five months a year in the middle of a forest where no one I knew had a car.

Even during that extremely difficult first semester I felt amazing. I was ecstatic to be free of my public high school (a very decent school that I was proud to go to but so very midwestern and ordinary) and into a place where everyone was as creative as I was, everyone participated in class, everyone wanted to be there. I was so happy that I, previously a shy kid, started to act out in strange ways, like playing pranks with a squirt gun and wearing awful Hawaiian shirts that just technically qualified as the school uniform. Before that I had only written sci-fi stories, fanfic really, for my friends’ amusement and now real, published writers were teaching me and expecting me to turn out serious, literary fiction and dramatic writing — and somehow, at the end of two years I went from being the Star Trek kid to a real writer good enough to make those teachers proud. Most importantly, I made a group of friends that forms the core of my social circle to this day.

Interlochen is just an inspiring place. First of all, it’s beautiful. It’s in the forest, by a lake. In the autumn the changing leaves are breathtaking, the stark landscape when it’s buried under three feet of snow in the winter feels satisfyingly empty, and the spring, when the snow melts, when the lake thaws, when life returns… it’s the best and the most beautiful time of all. To fill a place like that with talented, young musicians, dancers, visual artists, actors and writers who are all filled with the excitement of really being challenged for the first time in their lives, and dedicated to pure creativity without any thought of commercialism, marketability or where to get a paycheck from, is a recipe for something very near heaven. True, those kids are being set up for a disappointment when they find out that life isn’t quite that pure. Some that I know didn’t care to continue in the arts once they saw what the professional world was like, and that’s okay. The experience of Interlochen is reason enough to go to Interlochen. And for those who did continue — like, I was suprised to discover, me — it’s better to have started with that sweet, romantic naïveté because we continue to try like mad to somehow keep it alive in what we do.

Last September was my ten year reunion. My friends and fellow alumni got together and rented a house near campus and spent three days catching up with old classmates and visiting the current students in their classes. It was quite an experience. Things have changed and yet the feeling is still there. The writing class I visited talked about Michael Chabon and James Frey rather than Ray Carver and Joyce Carol Oates (although Hemingway’s perrenial favorite “Hills Like White Elephants,” which only a writing teacher could love, still came up, so I guess things haven’t changed that much), but the students still had that same intense, almost comically serious dedication to coaxing Art from their pens and keyboards.

Being there, I could feel the creative energy of Interlochen flowing back into me and my friends. Two friends who have lapsed in their artistic pursuits suddenly started talking about reapplying themselves. The effect wasn’t temporary either — even now, a month and a half later, they’re both still committed.

For my part, I felt good about everything I’ve accomplished. In the ten years since leaving college I’ve written a half a dozen short stories that I stand by, three unproduced feature screenplays, three stage plays that were produced and started a novel. I’ve also won two major fiction awards, the Hopwood and the Iowa Review Award, and other miscellanea. And I also managed to have a great social life and do a lot of exciting things, and worked enough to finance 99 percent of my post-college life. It was hard work, it was slow work, but I had kept the faith with the Interlochen artistic ideals and I felt really good about it.

But for all I had accomplished, I still felt a little bit amateur. I want writing to be my career, but it’s just a hobby that I’m very dedicated to. I’ve grown so much, and yet the result is that I’m becoming more and more aware of certain limitations. More than that, I sensed in myself the problem that anyone who is largely self-taught has: I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And that was the moment I decided for certain that I wanted to go to grad school.


Leave a comment! What was (were) the hardest and greatest experience(s) of your life?

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