by Ken Rosenberg
Graduate students are necessarily writers by trade, but it takes a bold and motivated soul to try and add to the prescribed writing schedule with side projects – especially wholly non-academic ones, like fictional stories. Master’s students Michelle Funk and Shannon Schenck are two such people. They have ongoing side projects; both write in the realm of science fiction/fantasy. Michelle, a first-semester IU grad, is actually writing two stories.
“One of them is my baby,” Michelle said, “and the other is something that’s been on the backburner for a very long time, because it’s not as close to my heart and it’s a little more advanced than I want to start working on yet.” The story which currently receives the most attention is the one that is closer to her personal experiences. According to Michelle, it is “more psychological,” dealing with a mental disorder that has the protagonist losing track of reality and replacing it with a mediated reality. She has been working on this story for about a year and a half.
The other story is a more standard sci-fi fare and requires more scientific knowledge to make it seem plausible. It takes place about 1,000 years in the future, where a dystopian society is dissatisfied with its lifestyle and hires “Internet archeologists” who use refracted signals from space to data mine through time, back to our era, to observe how a younger, simpler world conducts its business. Michelle was inspired to work on this story when she heard about how radio signals bounce back from the moon.
“They couldn’t look back far enough, though,” Michelle said, describing her story, “because we’re already messing up the earth. Ultimately, the people who do this research are going to scrap the project, because it’s worthless. They can’t look far back enough. They’re already viewing a society that had too many flaws.” The main character, though, becomes personally attached to the project after stumbling upon a man from the past who “apparently had a clear obsession with recording his life on the Internet,” Michelle said. She referenced Michael Chrichton and the level of research required to make his premises seem plausible.
“I want to do it right, and I just don’t have the time for that right now,” Michelle said. She’s been working on this one, when she can, for about three years.
“What generally happens,” Michelle said, “is that I sit down to try and write, become distracted and later, when I’m trying to go to sleep, I start getting rapid thoughts and I rush to my computer.” Three-hour, late-night writing binges are rare – only a couple per month.
On the other hand, as Shannon knows, it’s stolen time when you become a grad student.
“Now, it’s mostly only when I get ideas,” Shannon said. “I tend to do this in the way I do most things. Ideas come in the middle of the night, or while I’m at work, or somewhere when I can do absolutely nothing about it – so it’s quickly sent emails, and notes posted from my phone, and scraps of paper get tucked into places, to be absorbed into the bible.”
Shannon has been working on her story, “Orb of Obbclasioscstis,” for fifteen years.
“It is literally the longest relationship that I’ve had in my life,” Shannon said, “and it’s not been very kind or reciprocal.” She began working on the concept at age eleven.
The setting of Shannon’s story involves a fantasy-like dystopian future, with a society that once had magic but – because of a shadow-like force – the monarchy was destroyed and only a few denizens still have magic powers. The main character, a fairy named Fay, is met with fear and bigotry, so she leaves the remnants of the kingdom to forge her own.
“She’s not an anti-hero,” Shannon explained. “There’s no happy ending, no change in the protagonist. She’s still going to be alone.” Fay experiences unrequited love and fails to solve her personal issues; people die. “It’s a black fairy tale,” she said. “I wanted to play with the convention of the hero’s journey, to explore what happens when things occur, but don’t really change.”
Shannon cites the Goosebumps books as her inspiration, while Michelle tries to keep in mind the works of popular authors Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.
“I don’t want to lose that element of childishness in writing,” Michelle said. “Especially in grad school, everything can become so dry. The time in my life when I was most inspired was when I was a lot younger – and so I would like to target those people, or even people our age, but in a way that captures that playful essence.”
Both Shannon and Michelle have found small yet significant ways of keeping their dreams alive amidst the toil of grad school and other obligations.
Part of what keeps things fresh for Michelle is also a piece of advice she would like to give to our cohort: find a new place to sit down each writing session. Since she was an IU undergrad, as well, Michelle has had plenty of time to explore our campus and find her favorite nooks, including the Law library, the Fine Arts building, and “even places that aren’t really for writing,” she said. “It really helps the creative process – find someplace pretty.”
Also, to stay focused, Michelle has gutted her old laptop. It can’t surf the web, it can’t play games. All that’s loaded on the system is a copy of Word and a pile of drafts.
If you want more advice on how to write stories or how to preserve writing projects through grad school, talk to Michelle or Shannon.