A Week in the Life of a Grad Student: Shawn DeSouza-Coelho


Shawn
I don’t know how it keeps happening, but each “Week in the life of a Grad Student” post is wildly different than the previous ones, and just as compelling. Thank you Shawn for contributing.–JLH

I’d like to start this post off by saying that this is without a doubt the most fun I’ve ever had in school. Nowhere else do I get to think as many justifiably crazy thoughts as I want and be rewarded for it. Much of my Graduate career thus far has been the pursuit of those crazy thoughts because – and it’s only now that I realize this – that’s what school is for: challenging yourself to think better, think wider, think longer, think farther, and, yes, to fail miserably in the attempt. I’ve spent my entire time here in the English Department pursuing one failure after another. I’ve never handed in an essay I’ve felt good about. I’ve never given a presentation that didn’t terrify me. I’ve never read a book here that didn’t question the foundations of my thought. I haven’t spent a single day in this MA program feeling comfortable and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am here to learn and, more than that, to learn how to learn. And while I’m usually exhausted from the pursuit, I adhere completely to a simple adage: “Struggle is not an option. It is a biological necessity.” What follows here is a description of that daily struggle to, in Beckett’s words, “Try again. Fail Again. Fail better.”

I work via routine and so everyday is more or less the same: regimented from the time I wake up until the time I finish my work in the evening. Each day consists of three or four of the following: Literary Training (in which I focus on doing various creative writing exercises), Musical Training (in which I focus on either piano or harmonica), Physical Training (in which I keep up with my first love and original profession: acting), Reading (in which I focus on reading anything I can get my hands on: novels, short stories, graphic novels, nonfiction, etc.), Class Work (in which I work on assignments or various class readings), and MRP Work (in which I focus on readings, work, etc. directed towards my eventual MRP). Each of these is represented via a chunk of time in my iCal. These chunks can be moved around should something come up in the day. However, I do treat my MA as my job and so I try to avoid intrusions to the workday.

Whenever I work for extended periods of time I do so via a method I learned from my Grade 10 History teacher: 1 hour on (i.e. of concentrated work), 20 minutes off (i.e. doing anything but work: playing games, piano, etc.). The idea is that the brain gets tired of doing the same thing for extended periods of time and so every so often it needs refreshing. It’s like hitting the restart button every hour. I work via a timer and keep to the schedule as much as I can. I try to nap in the afternoon everyday to keep my energy up (no more than 20 minutes, of course). I try to finish around 6:00pm, and leave my evenings open for being social (work-life balance is important and, as you get older, and everybody gets busier, it becomes all the more important to actively devote time to friends and family). Saturday and Sunday I’m a bit more loosey-goosey with things, but on the whole I tend to consider them just another day to get some things done.

In recent weeks, due to certain deadlines, much of the above regiment has been taken over by drafting, in which I spend 3 or 4 consecutive days in the week drafting design documents for my MRP. Every other day is spent catching up on everything else.

And that’s about it. I live in Toronto so I commute to Waterloo for class whenever I have one and usually stay long into the evening so that I miss rush hour traffic on the way back. I work in the MA offices on those days (mostly reading) and find the solitude I often encounter there to be stimulating. I admit here and now to having had many solo dance parties in those empty offices where I kick off my shoes, kick up the jams, and boogie down. (If you take anything away from my rambling let it be that dancing is awesome and you need to do it right now.) I do wish I lived in town, however, because I’ve found that I’ve excluded myself from my fellow Grad students and much of that culture. However, I do what I can to participate when I can. Whenever I’m in class I try to bring as much as I can to the table during discussions. It’s such a pleasure being surrounded by such brilliant minds.

I’ll end this with a poem:

“Berryman” – W.S. Merwin

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

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