Sunday, June 29, 2008

“I felt like an alien at Penn.”

“Don’t write that I took you to a Starbucks!” Melissa Duclos says with a laugh at the end of our interview at, uh, an anonymous coffee shop on the corner of 2nd Ave. and 9th St.. The place was actually lovely – there was even a waiter walking around with bits of sugar cookies, something that I have never seen at other S*****ucks in the city but that Duclos says is common in China, where she once taught English for six months (and learned that the Chinese are fond of cookie samples).

Duclos’ résumé also includes waitressing in Philadelphia and Atlanta, a job that prompted customers to ask, “What are you doing here??” after they found out she had graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

“I felt like an alien at Penn,” Duclos admits, referring to her disregard of the “investment-banking-or-die” track popular with many a Whartonite. After graduating as a creative writing major, Duclos dabbled in the aforementioned waitressing, went to China, and moved back east to Brooklyn to tutor. She now attends graduate school at Columbia, tutors privately at a center on the Upper East Side, and teaches a writing class at Columbia for freshmen undergrads.

All the while, Duclos has been working on her first novel – well, technically it’s a second draft of her first book, which she describes as being an “awful young adult novel.” She has perspective though, and realizes that the nature of the writing industry requires tough skin.

“For a while, I had rejection letters from agents taped up to my wall. I understand that you have to be rejected before getting published…it’s just something you have to go through,” she says.

While in Atlanta and China, Duclos hardly worked on her novel at all. However, living in Brooklyn and being surrounded by artists and writers has really helped keep Duclos focused on her writing. “Knowing so many other writers really keeps me on track – they are people to talk to, and it makes it easier to be self-disciplined. Sometimes non-writers don’t realize that writing a novel is a job, even though I don’t get paid for it.”

Being an unpaid writer myself, I know exactly what she means. If I had a nickel for every time one of my Wharton friends poked fun at me with a snide, “So what exactly are you doing all summer – blogging?”, I’d surely have as much money as they are making at their internships.

Duclos feels that writing doesn’t get as much artistic street cred as, say, oil painting, because it is so much more accessible to the common person. “When people hear I’m writing a novel, they are like, ‘Oh, I’ve been meaning to do that!’” she says.

We both agree that relying on Word’s built-in thesaurus application is hardly an acceptable way to write a novel – Duclos actually thinks it’s awful because people are so inclined to replace simple words with longer ones that make no sense in their contexts (this reminds me of the “Friends” episode when Joey uses the Word thesaurus and it replaces his name with “baby kangaroo.”).

However, as a writing teacher, Duclos uses the accessibility of the craft as an encouragement mechanism for her students – as in, everyone can write, it’s just a matter of learning and honing the right skills.

Teaching has also educated Duclos on the email etiquette, or lack thereof, that students use when addressing one another and their professors. Duclos realizes that, as a grad student, she’s younger than your average balding professor and has her students call her “Melissa.” However, that’s no excuse for the absurdly casual way they address her via email. “They’ll send me an email at 3 a.m. that’s like, ‘hey what was the homework’ – that’s what their classmates are for!”

Colloquial discourse has become much more textual with new technological mediums: texting, IMing, Facebook messaging, and emailing are the new protocol. Duclos believes that students are so used to being informal in their email conversations that they think it’s acceptable to basically say “yo whattup” to their superiors.

It’s not as if my generation is totally void of written manners; most of us have been taught how to compose a charming thank you note or a professional cover letter. We just have to learn how to meld the familiar world of emailing with the formal world of handwriting.

1 comment:

dgold911 said...

If writing a novel is as easy as people think how come I can't find anything decent to read? Being a good writer is hard. It take s talent (and of course Miss Blogger, as your unbiased mother, I am certain that you are blessed with oodles of it!)