I have a meeting this week on a college campus. Sitting here right now, I’m nervous that I won’t be able to find the building and the room that the meeting is in.

University campuses are often confusing. Also, I find them terrifying. The gravitas of Higher Learning makes me feel small and uneducated. These places are NOT FOR ME, in scary capital letters.

And oh, how I’ve always wanted them to be. At least I used to. Part of what I want to share today is what’s changed.

I remember when I was in high school, and people or magazines told me that I should look into what college I wanted to go to. As a homeschooled kid in Alaska, I didn’t know what they were talking about.

I sent in a postcard asking for college information, and packages came to my mailbox. Large envelopes with pictures of happy students–slightly older and WAYYYY cooler than me– sitting on lawns under trees laughing and studying.

Alaska had very few lawns or trees you could sit under.

When I got to the part where they outlined how much it cost I couldn’t believe it. Forty five THOUSAND dollars for a school year?

For four years in a row?

That wasn’t going to happen.

And, in fact it mostly didn’t. I took classes when I could, between working to keep myself alive and pay for school. The University in Alaska wasn’t like those fancy college packets.

Years pass and I move to California, where the colleges were a lot more like the packets. But I was now older that those still WAYYY cooler kids, and behind and not catching up.

I would walk the grounds of colleges sometimes; I felt the hunger to learn every single thing I could.

But it won’t for me. I was still there on my night classes, like some kind of stowaway, sneaking snatches of learning.

Snatches of learning served me well in the jobs I was doing to support myself. I was always ready to learn more in my job, and so I got better and better job.

Then came the magical moment that I graduated from college. Which felt great!

Except then I wasn’t in college anymore.

But wait! There’s graduate school! College can go on forever!

But I’d already started my career without college. And I’d have to abandon a perfectly good career path to go to graduate school.

Isn’t that completely reverse of what they tell you?

Yeah. But learning for learning’s sake still called to me. And when I would go to college campuses, I would have this surge of wishing I could study there.

Until it kind of felt nostalgic. Like I was wishing for a past that I has imagined I could have had but then didn’t actually have, but not in the future was remembering wanting.

Did you follow that? I hope so.

So looking at these Ivory tower campuses got really confusing.

And after I finished writing THE BEAST, aka The Russian American School of Tomorrow, I knew that colleges–even grad school–couldn’t have helped me write THAT. I was and am so proud of that book and what I created that I saw something.

I had gone past what college could do for me. Not to say I wouldn’t learn something from classes, if I took them.

But the neat packages of learning that are outlined in syllabuses are not what I’m doing anymore.

I’ve graduated. And I finally feel it and know it.

So when I go to UCLA for my meeting, I can appreciate it. Maybe like a person an old unrequited flame.

But I’m really happy with what I’ve been learning and doing. I’m confident that I have my own curriculum I’m uncovering.

word count

“You have to cut it in half.”

“What?! I wrote it, and it says what it’s supposed to say!”

“The rules of the contest say it has to be half the number of words. Don’t worry, this will be easy.”

I did not believe it. But my mom, my best writing teacher ever, took the time to go over my story, and we did in fact cut it in half. I won the contest and have never forgotten the lesson I learned as a young teenager:

Say what needs to be said, in as few words as possible.

Then came college, and the assignments included writing a ten-page paper.

Ten pages? Of what?

Whatever the topic is, apparently. And I had to use sources, which means I am writing ten pages of stuff that has already been written. But for my paper, I can’t use the same words as the original stuff. I’m supposed to make it my own.

But never use the word “I” or refer to myself in any way.

My mind exploded. Who is making these crazy rules?

But I was used to unfair rules, and I learned to do it. I cranked out a series of ten page papers in enough succession to get a bachelor’s degree. Then I learned that in order to get a master’s degree, you had to write 20 page papers.

That was a bridge too far.

The length of a piece of writing should serve the purpose of the idea it’s trying to convey. It should be interesting, it should definitely convey the voice of the writer and it should not ramble on.

I graduated from college 15 years ago, and I’ve done more writing after than I ever did during. And I did get past the 20-page mark, but I used the first person “I” many many times.

I have been able to make my own rules about what makes sense in my writing.

It’s been lovely.


A new unfair rule has popped up in my world. The rules of the search engines.
The Wonderblog lives in a world dominated by Google. It’s 15 years old, and I have published more than 2,000 posts. Very very few of them are more than a thousand words. Very very few of them are less than 300.

Heretofore, I have spent no time thinking about Google’s opinion of my blog and my posts.

I am thinking a little about it now. A lot of people do think about it. I found this article that suggests Google prefers to serve up articles of a certain length: 2500 words. So if I want people to find what I write by using Google, I have to meet these new rules.

I wonder.

Does Google really know what people want?

I don’t know. I’d love for more people to read what I write, but not at the cost of making my writing worse.

It’s probably the same issue that the university had. Neither Google nor academia is a great judge of art.

They are systems, not souls.

And if I wanted to play by their rules, I had better bring a different set of tools.

Sometimes 500 words can do what 2500 can’t.