Posted by Erin Carlo, Creative Nonfiction Reader for Issue 4.1
High school and college students are plagued with thoughts and concerns about the future. Speaking with someone who has experience in a field of interest can help alleviate the stress we experience as we face the unknown.
Thinking of my future invoked anxious feelings that began to tug at my normally lighthearted, happy presence. I started to feel uneasy, easily distracted, and irritated because I didn’t know what my “next step” would be.
I found myself on the Geneseo English department webpage, looking at requirements for my major, when I stumbled upon the profile of Tracy Strauss, a graduate of SUNY Geneseo and former English major. She sounded so nice, so happy, so successful! I wanted to know more about her, and how she got to this point. I reached out to Ms. Strauss and asked her if she would be willing to speak with me.
Tracy Strauss has been successful since graduating from Geneseo in 1996. She has been published in The Huffington Post, Salon, The Rumpus, xoJane, Poets & Writers Magazine, Writer’s Digest Magazine, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, The Feminist Wire, The Dodo, The Southampton Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Beyond the Margins, and more. Ms. Strauss is currently a liberal arts and writing instructor at the New England Conservatory of Music Writing Center in Boston, Massachusetts.
Her favorite book is The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien and her favorite author is Mary Karr.
EC: How did your experience at SUNY Geneseo shape you as a writer?
TS: I was profoundly influenced by the Humanities core classes and the literature classes I took as an English major, particularly African-American autobiography. I was drawn to the ways in which individuals transcended seemingly insurmountable circumstances through inner strength as well as through the written word. During my freshman year, my parents got divorced and I was having roommate problems, and I thought about dropping a core history class I was enrolled in, American Society Since 1945. I went to speak with my professor (Joseph McCartin), and he encouraged me to stay for another couple of weeks. I honestly didn’t know if I would. But then, the next time class met, he played a clip from the film Rebel Without a Cause, in which James Dean’s character is yelling that his parents are “tearing [him] apart.” Suddenly, I felt a deep connection to the material at hand, and a desire to be able to accomplish, with my own writing, that kind of communication and connection with an audience through narrative. College was a time in my life when I really didn’t hear or know my own voice, because I’d buried it under layers of unprocessed personal pain. I didn’t really find or embody my voice until a decade later, but the seeds were planted at Geneseo. When I was a junior in Rachel Hall’s creative writing class, she gave an assignment to write an imitation of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” I wrote about an experience I’d had in high school when I was held up at gunpoint while working as a cashier at a CVS. It was the first time I gave voice to that experience in a palpable way. I learned about the power of using second person—“you”—not as a command in this instance but as a way to revivify my experience for the reader. Rachel saw merit in my writing and encouraged me to submit the piece to a magazine for publication. It was ultimately rejected, but her belief in the potential success of my voice on the page prompted me to continue to explore writing and to hone my craft.
EC: Was there a professor at Geneseo who made you look at English differently? Was it something he or she said to you?
TS: Graham Drake was my advisor for two English internship courses in writing and editing, one during the summer after my sophomore year, and one during my senior year. I was also a tutor in the Writing Learning Center, which Dr. Drake advised at the time. I learned a lot from him about high standards in writing and editing, the practical applications of an English major’s academic work, and the importance of cultivating a sense of humor. Dr. Drake taught me to look at English as a road full of possibilities for my life in the “real world,” after college. When I would talk with him about career possibilities and my interests, and my worry about whether or not such-and-such a field was “practical,” he’d say, “Follow your star.” After graduation, whenever I’d email him for advice, he’d repeat his mantra. Follow your passion. Follow your inner compass. Do what you were born to do. Of course, that’s not to say the path is going to be easy, but the work you do will be inherently meaningful – and not just to you, but to others, to the world.
EC: Do you ever regret being an English major? If you were mentoring someone about his or her choices in higher education, would you recommend the English major?
TS: I’ve never regretted being an English major. Ever! I cherish that choice. When you’re an English major, you have so many options. The world is yours.
EC: Please share one piece of advice with aspiring writers for success and happiness in life after the English major.
TS: Believe in your voice and never give up. Be open to critical feedback. Try to let go of preconceived notions of where you “should” be at a certain point in your life (most of those notions are stereotypes fed to us by the media) or what it means to be a “successful” writer. Sometimes the writing business (and life itself) can be cutthroat, cruel, or random in its ways. Even if you try really hard, you will fail at some point or other (or seemingly all the time for a while). Stay centered on the work-at-hand, not on the acceptances and rejections, or comparing yourself to what or how others are doing. You’ll find your way.
I’d like to extend my most sincere gratitude to Tracy, for taking the time to answer my questions, and for providing these encouraging words. I now feel as if the future is not so daunting. If we do what we love, what we are passionate about, and what we are good at, we will find our way.