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MIT student blogger Jess K. '10

Brief Wondrous Lives by Jess K. '10

A little too much thinking brought to you by four in the morning.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lives lately, in multiple senses of the word. For one, my floor is playing Assassins, or “Spoonsassins”, in which one is given a spoon and a victim and told to “kill” their victim by finding them spoonless off the floor and tagging them. Upon killing, one absorbs their victim’s victim, and so on until one person is left. This creates all sorts of interesting mind games in which some people shout their victims’ names from the rooftops, some people keep quiet, and some people send their victims threatening emails with photos of a Malaysian baby with the words “I’M WATCHING YOU” scrawled across it in red.

I am lucky to still be alive, having brought my spoon dancing, running, sleeping, and sometimes swimming, and also having become extra cautious of all Malaysian babies in my way. As this week the spoon changed to toothbrush, if you happen upon me anywhere in the greater Boston or Cambridge area you should know it’s not because I’m just that vigilant about dental hygeine.

In another sense, I’m taking a fiction workshop this term taught by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz. It’s the first fiction class I’ve taken in a long time, maybe even since middle school, and the combination of such an inspiring professor with the fact that I’ve been at MIT for four years and have never thought to take a creative writing class before have quickly transformed the twice-a-week, hour-and-a-half sessions into something I eagerly look forward to. We write, we read, we read other’s writing, we write about other’s writing, and we write again. Sometimes our assignments are as simple as a seven page story, and other times they’re as specific as “Write a four-line conversation in which the characters in Meder’s story have a conversation with his parents, to highlight the isolation one feels in returning to a place that’s supposedly your home to the people who supposedly know you.”

Professor Diaz is a fascinating guy to study under as well – during these sessions he strides around our overly large square workshop table, stopping occasionally to think out loud with his hands extremely close to your face, or to encourage us all to volunteer – “Come on guys, we’ve got to get you more enthusiastic about volunteering. This will be very helpful for our future, when we’re all drafted in the military.” Last Tuesday as we read a fellow student’s story about a mother with a brain tumor and the son that cares for her, he urged us all to think of what the mother wants. “When we’re talking about the pathology too much, we’re not talking about the character,” Junot Diaz says, and I think about his full name in my head, like when you meet the Prince of Morocco and you add “says Mohammad VI, Prince of Morocco” every time he says anything. “How many times have you seen that ‘I am not my disease’ ad? How difficult is it to maintain an autonomous self when everyone wants to reduce you just to this disease?”

“What does the mother want? She hasn’t gotten anything back. Have I really given my characters what they want? More than just what I want?”

I thought about this some more as I left class that day. Each character that you write, even though they may just live in this universe that you’ve created, has wants and needs and dreams and desires, too, and even if you write about interesting things that don’t often happen to people (my latest story was a happy combination of bipolar II disorder, psychotic schizophrenia, domestic violence, and miscarriage), you’ve made them real. They have lives, too. And by extension, they desire things and dream of being something greater, just as you do.

Which brings me back to my own life.

I have always wanted to be a writer. Just like I’ve always wanted to be a farmer, cowboy, obstetrician, or one of those clowns who makes balloon hats. Some of those dreams kind of got lost along the way, and as an MIT senior, I spend a lot of my time wondering if writing has become one of them. Three years prior to Junot Diaz’s hand being incredibly close to my face, my favorite high school English teacher sat me down and told me she didn’t think MIT would let me reach my full creative capacity. Although it was more tactful than my sister’s words, who told me that if I went to MIT I would die before the age of nineteen, it still stuck with me that someone who believed in me thought I wasn’t supposed to be a scientist.

I am twenty-one now, and if I fall off a building now I will have been twenty-three months past my predicted date of expiration. Which is, notably, not too far off the age of milk in my fridge (though I am in my second decade, I am also nowhere near adulthood). Inability to throw things away aside, I am getting to that age where people from professors to the guy who mops my dorm bathroom keep asking me what I am going to do with my life, and I just don’t have any idea.

For a while it was “astronaut.” This vocational path quickly fell to the wayside when I realized the department of aeronautics and astronautics was filled with undergrads floating down that zero gravity canal of self-destruction. Not wanting to prove my sister right before my first semester was over, I settled on course 9, brain and cognitive science. Brain and cognitive science is a great major if you want to do a lot of thinking about other people thinking, which seemed just convincing enough to me to convince other people that I was thinking about what they were thinking and also thinking that I think I know what I’m doing.

“You think or you know?” They would ask, scratching their heads.
“I think.”

It all sounds so funny because MIT is one of those places where a lot of people really know what they’re doing, where they’ll be in five years, and what color socks they’re wearing tomorrow. They probably won’t be matching socks, but I’ll be damned if they’re not olive green and striped brown. In five years, they’ll have won the MacArthur Genius Grant for their work on nanophotonics, and there was never any question of what field they would devote their life to because it’s all they’ve ever wanted to do. And then there are people like me, who haven’t yet decided if they want to wear the grey sweatpants, or the red ones today. (It’s looking like red, but it’s still a little too early to tell. I’ll get back to you on this one.)

This is absolutely not to say that I think that MIT was the wrong choice for me. I’ve truly loved the coursework and the material I was digesting, my intellectual restriction enzymes chomping along merrily on 9.12 (Neurobiology Lab) to 9.15 (Biochemistry and Pharmacology of Synaptic Transmission, which I love a little bit because of the mouthful of the full course name). But just when I realized that I very much enjoyed mulling over the complexities of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, I also realized I was a senior, the time when all the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed kids you once sat next to in 8.02 suddenly have suits and job interviews at places that supposedly offer a diverse and challenging working environment that will utilize your analytical problem skills and critical thinking, diving into a job market that’s essentially stacked against young people everywhere.

I am exploring my options as of now, but I wanted to write this post to tell you a little bit about my life right now, why I’ve been a little lax on posting and how our lives are suddenly so similar. As you fill out your college applications and ask for recommendations and worry about that one not-so-fantastic grade you got in AP Chemistry, whatever that may have been, rest assured I am just as confused and hopeful and optimistic and worried about the future as you are. It’s my life, I think, and it’s all of our lives that we need to think of as writers, but at least we have a leg up on those fictional characters – we don’t have to sit around and wait for someone to write it for us. We are more than what someone writes about us in the paper, whether it’s the New York Times or whether it’s something we wrote down in a 250-word personal statement about our biggest challenges. We have a say.

Hopefully, we’ll get it right.

Best of luck to you all, and please feel free to email me with any burning questions about admissions, life as a student here, or what color sweatpants I finally decided on. (We’re back to grey as of now.)

26 responses to “Brief Wondrous Lives”

  1. Ian (16'?) says:

    First! Really liked the post. At least I know I’m not the only one who’s unsure of what they want to be.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wow, so many posts all of a sudden.

    Good luck with life. smile

  3. Justin says:

    Malaysian here. =)

  4. RandomAlum says:

    Cheers! I actually found MIT stimulating for my creativity, though it was a constant battle between making art and doing psets or labs…

  5. Anonymous says:

    Interesting how that post can be so long and feature so many different things, but, despite being about life, not mentioning money in any appointed way.

  6. Jess says:

    @RandomAlum: Oh, I didn’t mean to say that I didn’t find MIT stimulating for my creativity; in fact, quite the opposite. Maybe that’s what my English teacher thought, and though it’s a common misconception, I’ve found that in between taking 4.301 (Introduction to Visual Arts) and 21W.770 I’ve been more creatively challenged in classes than I ever was in high school. You can ask Keri about her graduate class in photo or Yan about her experimental cooking, but I think most of the bloggers would say the same.

  7. rose says:

    All those who wander are not lost smile

  8. han says:

    was there an actual malaysian kid playing the game? or was it a random poster?

  9. Jess says:

    @han: yup, Anisha’s directly from Malaysia

  10. Piper '12 says:

    You wanted to be a clown?


  11. Oasis '11 says:

    ^ Hey, I was a clown who made balloon animals for like a week in high school.

    That week was awesome smile

    (i don’t think i would like to do that full-time, though…haha)

  12. Anon says:

    The poster should be superseded by lolcats

  13. Val'14? says:

    Nice post Jess.
    You’ll make a great writer

  14. Quynh says:

    Hey Jess smile
    I’m a current junior in high school but i know partly how you feel…or i guess torned…i had always thought i was the type that knew where i was going but now not so much anymore

    thanks for the post…really deep and makes me think

  15. Hmmm, yes I suppose characters in a story have their own “lives” too! It’s amazing how you at MIT all write so well and are interested in creative writing and music and stuff.

    Yes, that not-so-good grade in AP Chemistry and the like; I suppose we’ve all been there!

    BUT you’re doing so well senior year and an inspiration to all of us!!

  16. This is kind of funny, but I decided to take a break from all of MIT’s essays, and went to MIT’s blogs. Of course, I see the name Jess and think “OOO” and click it.

    And then I read that mini-biography, and it’s funny–we sound really alike to me. One of my short answers for MIT is actually comparing Sudoku puzzles to Calculus. I loooveee the song “One Week.” My major changed a lot too. Right now I’m dead-set on architecture. But I’ve been looking into Cognitive Science, because that’s what I’ll do if architecture doesn’t work out.

    Pretty inspiring =) I can finish my essays now!

  17. jack lee says:

    I think you should be youself,come on!I am from China!Best wishes!u will be sucessful.

  18. Belle says:

    Hi Jess! Quick question about teacher recs. I know we’re supposed to only one from a math/sci teacher, but would it be okay if I get my math teacher to write me one but then also one of my science teacher (who coaches a bunch of ECs) to write one also? And if she can also write one, can she still comment on my performance within the classroom?

    Thank you!

  19. toothbrusher says:

    i got bored because you wrote too much


    but seriously i don’t know how to read all your words.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Child is sweet

  21. Lisa F. says:

    First of all-
    Your grammar, writing style, sentence structure and description of events are outstanding! I too, at one or more points in my life dreamt of, fantasized, visualized and Planned on being a writer. English had always been my favorite subject, not to mention my best. Poetry has always come naturally to me, the thoughts turn to words that flow easily from pen to paper to dynamic writing that even I myself marvel at.
    However, I have not become the “writer” I dreamed of, you know-that fantasy of having your name in print, with hundreds-thousands of people whose greedy eyes scan pages with YOUR writings, in wonderment and admiration thinking-“Man, this girl is an absolute genius”, or “Wow, like shes’ got it all figured out”, or numerous other daydream scenarios.
    Dig this-What I did not realize untill, well-practically this instant, is that I AM A WRITER, and SO ARE YOU! Is that cool, or is that cool?
    Yes, it is! We are writers, because we can and know how, have fabulous imaginations, ideas and observation skills, a 6th sense if you will, and sensitivity. Vocabulary is as essential to us writers as are tomatoes to marinara sauce. And just the act of writing, the words fluid and grand, expansive and seeming to run like a river onto the page is in itself joyful and fufilling.
    For years I boasted, “yeah, I’m gonna be a newsspaper journalist, preferably Editorialist, and publish some poetry too, blah blah”. Dreams my friend, lofty ideals just as huge as the intellect behind them-and there is nothing wrong with that! Dreams are great, and keep us going on, moving cause a Rollin’ stone gathers no moss, its good and positive and healthy.
    What am I going to school for now, after working lame jobs and Dreaming and bragging and boring my friends and family to death with my ideas on life and writing and everything else?
    Computer Info Technology-yep, found it, my calling, career wise that is. Why? Because I have got to analyze and troubleshoot, because I love and need constant challenge, because my inquisitive nature refuses to allow my brain rest.
    But, at the beginning of the day, and at the end-of every day I live, I am, and always will be-a writer. And you will to. Man-you really impressed me, so much that I know you will read this and feel the same way about me-you know LIKEMINDED? For me it’s like man, in my more often than not isolated world, in it’s brilliance and it’s lonlieness, (cant find people who relate, either think I’m weird or a Madman-woman) for me to come upon this blog, simply to read about financial aid Q/A-and then discover a likeminded soul such as yourself, whose thought processes (in the little I’ve read) and ideas, questionings and ponderings seem to mirror my own, it is truly a suprise that is welcome and shocking and by God, a blessing, most refreshing! Is it mania, madness or the full moon that causes me to ramble so? Nope, because this is what we writers do. Think, think some more, write what we think, and ok, maybe some mania too. Jess, you are one cool cat-and you are bound for awesome things in this life. Just keep your chin up, always think positive and I know you know this-even in the face of adversity, To Thine own self Be True. Sincerly~ Lisa F.

  22. peiyun says:

    This Malaysian ’16 hopeful is… confused. At least… at least Malaysian babies are somewhat useful in intimidation.

    That said, 21W.770 sounds very very great.


  24. Anonymous says:

    write is right!

  25. Anonymous says:

    fun fact, “jk” could stand for “just kidding” just as well as “Jess Kim”

  26. CB says:

    I love you.