STEP Reflection: Creative Writing at Yale University

I used the opportunity given to me through the STEP program to attend the 2015 Yale Writers’ Conference, Sessions 1 and 2, in the beautiful New Haven, CT. Session 1 was a 3-week-long program that included an intense workshop and daily programs (journal editor panels, major press and indie press publisher panels, novel pitch sessions, craft talks by established writers including Colm Tóibín and Cheryl Strayed).

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I was in a Creative Non-Fiction workshop led by Jotham Burello, publisher at the indie press Elephant Rock Books. As if sharing a personal piece isn’t scary enough, my workshop, save for another 20-year-old, was comprised of writers 40-and-over. I sat around a table with these writersmy own life a fraction of their years writing—feeling terrified, anxious, incompetent. What message could I, a 20-year-old college student from Cleveland, convey that they didn’t already know? How did I get here, a prestigious institution at a competitive writing conference, anyways?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since the third grade, but as I entered into adolescence and adulthood, my dreams swayed. I took positive comments on my ability for politeness. During my second year at OSU, I had become enamored with Creative Non-Fiction. To me, the beauty of CNF lies in its power. Stories can be so deeply subjective, yet the “NF” carries with it a promise of factuality. What better a medium to regain agency, to present a situation as you experienced it?

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Of all the stories I might have wrote for my manuscript, there was one that felt so immediate, necessary even, that I could not write anything else. The story ended with, “I blink and I am gone,” and I can’t say I was writing metaphorically.

A week before I moved into Baker Hall East, I was sexually assaulted. I spent my first year at OSU trying to ignore it, and my second year trying to sift through the event as if it held some truth about who I am. Passive. Pathetic. Yes I couldn’t speak, but perhaps I didn’t try hard enough? Perhaps I didn’t care enough about myself to voice dissent. Perhaps I deserved what had been done.  The word brave was unanimously used on my workshop day, but I definitely didn’t feel that way.

Some view literature as a vehicle to truth, and my own manuscript conveyed a truth I wasn’t ready to look in the face. While trying to deal with my assault, my self was fragmented. I scrambled to shove my experience away. I thought if I wrote it down into a lyric essay, my assault would become a character’s story instead of my own.

It wasn’t until lunch in the Davenport Dining Hall, directly after my workshop, that I understood the importance of sharing my story. A fellow workshop member came up to me. She gave me a hug and called me brave, and I still didn’t know what to say. She said she’d been keeping a secret for nearly 40 years, only recently had she told her husband and therapist. While traveling in Europe, she met a handsome Italian and naively agreed to go up to his apartment for a drink. She told me my story inspired her to write her own. The next workshop meeting, we shared new pieces we wrote, and my fellow workshop member shared a poignant piece about her assault in Italy. At times, I feared her voice would give out, that the grief would suppress the courage she had left. But grief never won. She left us with an image—a pajama-clad young woman, hurrying past the Trevi Fountain, cradled in her own arms.

It has been almost a year since I heard it, but I cannot forget this image. And I won’t ever forget this image, nor will I forget my own. Of course assault does not define someone, but I’ve learned that in order to live authentically, I must accept all that has happened to me as affecting who I am. I am a survivor, and through my writing I can learn, I can heal, I can define myself through my art rather than through bad memories.

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The STEP Program, on the surface, gave me the opportunity to go to the Yale Writers’ Conference where I learned about craft, publication, and my competition in the writing world. I never imagined my STEP experience would truly transform me, but looking back I know it marked a pivotal moment in my personal growth. I connected with other writers, regardless of age, and became confident in my own potential as a writer. I had my first workshop breakdown when I butchered the manuscript my fellow writers once loved. I came to terms with the idea that not all revision is good revision. I learned to love myself through my writing, even if it meant accepting all that I once tried to compartmentalize. Without this experience, I do not think I would have the necessary self-esteem to continue writing, or to feel okay again in my own skin. Without hesitation, I can now say: I am a survivor, I am a writer, my stories deserve to be told.

Rachel Cull – STEP Signature Project

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For my STEP Project I decided to learn all about Photography. The focus of my project has rested on unlocking my creative abilities through photography in order to have a creative outlet for stress. Also, the benefits of the Arts on learning and cognition are innumerable. I spent funds on a quality DSLR camera and some accessories in preparation for the Photo I class offered here, at The Ohio State University. I have taken photographs in several stages of learning and various settings and types. I fully expect photography to be a life-long love as well as a useful pastime.

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When starting with my camera, the first thing I learned was that I was inept with my camera. I remember thinking at the time that my photographs were so good for a beginner, and some were, but the majority had bad lighting or weird framing. A photographer I know taught me the difference between aperture and shutter-speed priorities and how to use manual mode. My photos got exponentially better after that. Then, my Photo I professor, Jared, taught me about white balance, framing, and all of the different types of photography. He critiqued my work and helped me learn my strengths and weaknesses and I got better again. There is still plenty about my camera I don’t know, but I have the understanding and skill necessary to tweak settings and know what that does to my images. There will always be something new to try!

I learned to see the beauty in the world, even the beauty in destruction. There was a girl in my class who took photographs of garbage on the street and they were lovely! I took photographs for a series on anxiety disorders that I eventually put into a small Art Show that President Drake attended. I got so much positive feedback from my instructor, my peers, and ultimately President Drake (which was pretty cool). It’s like in the movie, Concussion, when Dr. Omalu talks about the grace and beauty in football even though it’s destructive and lethal; so is the world and everything in it.

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Taking the class took an emotional toll on me at first. My work was critiqued week after week and some days it felt harsh. I liked all of my work and art is an emotional endeavor. But I learned that Jared’s “harsh” critiques would make me better, and I found that since that realization I have responded more positively to criticism, both constructive and otherwise. He also taught me that being creative can be logical and I have grown in creative skills as a result of taking this class, which was my goal. I’ve grown so much and realized that when I am critiqued, in any way: a grade on an exam, an evaluation of my performance at work, or a comment about my photographs, I am the only one that can fix that. Complaining about it or blaming it on the reviewer’s personal opinion won’t make it any better; it just wastes time. My life has gotten exponentially more satisfying due to this realization and understanding. Sometimes it really isn’t personal.

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My main goal in learning photography was to relieve stress in a creative way, a way that inspires me, so that whenever life gets crazy, I can just pick up my camera and see the world through a lens instead of my over analytic brain. I have found so much more relief than I ever hoped to find. And even after the photographs have been taken, the photos themselves bring me joy. I can capture little moments, stopped in time, and remember my life in them, even when my brain no longer can.

I’ve also been able to share my knowledge by taking photos for friends and family. I took head shots for my co-workers for their Linked-In profiles and I will offer to do the same whenever Hall Council or RA’s do professional development events. I took portraits of my friend for her mom. I have taken some family photos and have become the “official photographer” of Baker West. I love being able to share my new-found ability with others.

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Stepping out of my own head to see how a person, a landscape, a building, or an event looks through the lens is almost an out of body experience. It feels like it’s own form of meditation. That second when you hold your breath so the camera is still when you take your shot, everything becomes crystal clear. Everything looks so beautiful through a lens and it’s up to me to make it really sing. There is something so powerful about freezing a moment in time.