By Andrew | March 31, 2011
When I left my account of my process of transferring, I was just deciding on where to start at college. I had been accepted to every school I had applied to, but my process of deciding wasn’t very thorough at all. I eventually decided on SUNY Geneseo because, I thought, the state tuition would be the best value for my dollar, especially at an institution as respected as Geneseo. Deposits and housing applications were mailed, summer came and went, and I was settling into college life in Geneseo, or rather trying to settle.
Every time I had toured Geneseo, I had appreciated the natural beauty of the campus. Geneseo is located just south of Rochester in the Genesee Valley, and the campus is situated on one of the many steep hills overlooking farmlands and patches of forest. The small town, I thought, was idyllic: Main Street was the only street, flanked with small family businesses and surrounded with affluent suburbs. Even the smell of manure being spread by the farmers around had the air of authentic rusticity. I had thought it was a perfumed odor, but it was, of course, always a pile of excrement. This is a theme of idealization that should be kept in mind. I moved in with the sense that I would grapple with great questions here in the quaint wilderness, my abstracted Walden.
My intent since my junior year has been to major in English, flirting with my passion for language and writing but unable to commit to artistic study. However, in my senior year, I was encouraged to follow my dreams and write, being told that I had talent. I had approached schools looking for writing programs, but did so formulaically: Geneseo has an English program with a concentration in creative writing; Canisius has the same situation. Therefore, with that mentality, I saw no difference between the two programs. This, of course, was wrong. Plainly and simply wrong.
I can only speak particularly about my own unique experience, but I will try to offer some general observations to make this as practical as possible. For a creative writer, one needs more resources beyond classes, clubs, and labs; the art of writing relies both mechanically on learning from other writers and fundamentally on experiences––actually living life. Some writers may differ, but again I have my excuse of only having to write from my experience. Geneseo, I found out, is a little destitute in both respects. The town of Geneseo itself is, as you can tell from my description, small, secluded, and largely homogenous. This makes for a very cold literary environment. The town is so small as to not pull any authors really at all. The nearest city was Rochester, which could feature some established writers talking about their craft, but it was still thirty miles away––so far as to be prohibitive. Geneseo was effectively exiled, and the college existed in a bubble. What little was written there came only from the faculty and students; there was no import, so if one was going to learn from other writers, there came a point where literary inbreeding would take place. The same people (largely undisciplined, myself included) would come to readings and offer very little to learn about.
Here I’ll include one of those macro observations: A college is always limited by its surrounding area.
In addition to the general setting of Geneseo, the university itself suffered from difficulties. It is a university funded by the State of New York… perhaps you can see where I’m going. Budget cuts. School newspaper articles abounded with reports of continuing cuts to the SUNY budget, but by the time I had arrived, the creative writing program within the English major had been largely gutted. It is sadly the fate of many of the arts when faced with the hatchet of cash strapped administrators. I talked to my one professor there about the creative writing program as it stood when during my first semester. The picture he offered was bleak: faculty members trained in the academic study of English were teaching courses, the number of creative writing courses was dwindling due, and the one published writer––a poet––had retired the previous year. His position, though, was likely to go unfilled for awhile due to a hiring freeze that was starting to look like permafrost.
Not only was the fundamental study of writing gutted, but the auxiliaries of the craft were also lacking for the same reason. No creative writer was scheduled to speak at all, and no one had any intention of doing so. The only readings that occurred featured the writings of professors who, though talented, came from an academic background and therefore were often as undisciplined as their audience. This contributed to the literary inbreeding I had mentioned before.
Here’s another observation: a school is limited by its budget. It is helpful to consider the financial forecast of a university just as much you would a company you’re looking to invest in. Here, though, instead of investing in portfolio, you’re investing in the foundation for your life.
It was at this point of my career at Geneseo that I felt I had lost my aim. I knew what I wanted to do but couldn’t move in the direction of my dreams. I moved through the beautiful landscape feeling choked by a stuffily academic atmosphere. Similarly aimless walks alone through quiet suburbs and desolate forests were how I passed the time. I was floundering. I was discontent. I had stopped writing. That final realization was agonizing to me, and I knew then that I desperately needed to change or else live quietly.