May 10, 2021

O’CONNELL | Danke Schön, Cornell

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Overwhelmingly, other graduation column writers (bless them, all of them) will describe their goodbyes from Cornell as “bittersweet.” I respectfully disagree — I suffered. College transformed me from a bashful nervous wreck to a more self-assured nervous wreck; there’s few things you can really change in a person. A lot of this, you might be surprised to hear, revolved around talking. When you engage in a conversation, no matter how small the topic, you trade bits and pieces of your inner self as concessions for social activity; there is no interaction without at least some vulnerability exposed on both sides. I found this a profoundly painful undertaking, which is ironic because I have a giant mouth. 

So how did someone as antisocial as I decide that college journalism was a fine way to spend the past three years? Writing gave me the opportunity to create a barrier between a painful and often disappointing reality, and my own psyche. There’s so much information — superfluous or otherwise — jockeying for attention in one’s head at every moment, muddying any sense of inner peace or mental clarity. Writing let me take a second, a minute, an hour to gather my thoughts and consider the message of what I was creating. When I wrote for news, every word I added to the document was carefully considered, rejected, re-added and then edited once more for good measure. I didn’t have to add anything about myself; it was guiltless and amazing. What I did have was leeway to focus on how words, together, would convey the emotions collected over days of interviews. There’s nothing as self-affirming as looking to your fellow news editor, calling their attention to a less-than-imaginative lede on one of the stories we would be working on, and agreeing that “we can do better.”

By focusing on others’ stories I learned to tell my own. Vulnerability, accidentally spilled over in casual conversation, became less of a concern because I gained the ability to self-regulate on my own terms. News writing, then, begat my interest in other forms of writing, including personal essays and fiction, where I could pick and choose what parts of myself I added to the Google doc. I wrote a story about loneliness, another one about working long hours at the liquor store, and the best thing was that it never felt like a chore or like I was selling myself short. I still wrote for news, but now with an understanding of how each word, no matter how dispassionate, could evoke a choice emotion in The Sun’s readers.

A large part of this was the affirmation provided by my place at The Sun. I started as a staff writer, had my share of fluff pieces and Student Assembly gossip, slowly building up the confidence to keep writing at least once a week. The “big stories” — revelations that could shake up campus — correspondingly emerged as I developed that sense of recognizing dissatisfaction that journalists need and novelists want. It’s really about listening to what people say and don’t say. I heard a one-off comment about Cornell’s code of conduct revisions from an administrator a full year before they were suggested; a friend spreading a rumor about a student contracting COVID-19 at the onset of the pandemic; a union member’s pressed smile and refusal to talk at a Republican-led rally in the Commons. Each of those moments was accompanied with a little voice in my head saying, “this is a story.” And most of the time I was right, especially as a little more exploration inevitably revealed controversy lying underneath a thin veneer of normalcy. It’s a rule that when people are pissed, you have a story — stories don’t exist if no one cares about them, and this includes the writers themselves. I suppose that would be my advice to students looking to cut their teeth at The Sun: always follow the emotions, but not just others’. Trust what you see and hear, but also how you feel. At the end of the day, your readers won’t remember exactly what they read, only how and what they felt while reading it. 

I spent the last few paragraphs talking about personal growth, so I’m folding and giving in to my desire to appreciate the people that have helped me get to where I am now (alive, mostly well, happy). Maybe I was too harsh in casting aside the bittersweet emotions voiced by so many of my peers. Without heartbreak, without anguish, without redemption, I could never grow as a writer or as a person. Emotion must work as a guide because what else is there to follow? Words lie. People lie. Everything, at some point, will lie to you but your emotions won’t. It took me four long years to learn that, but I’m glad I did.

Just like Jay-Z and Kanye have done before me, I want to do a few shout outs to everyone that helped me get here. Thanks to the entirety of Brooklyn. Mama, te quiero mucho, Dad, I love you, all my sisters, you know the deal. Besos y abrazos para toda la familia en Buenos Aires! 

Another shout out to the tenants, the banned, Space Fam, Cat, Sham, Oli, Caleb, David, anyone else that has offered a kind word in a bad time. Final thanks to all the professors that pushed me in the right direction — Zukovic, Green, Klein, for starters, but there’s more that I’m not mentioning. I wouldn’t be writing this column without all of you. 

Sean O’Connell is graduating from the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. He served as a news editor on the 138th editorial board.