Article Image
Katie Lee / Staff illustrator

I’ve written six columns for Spectator this semester. That’s, give or take, about 6,000 words. I believe, very strongly, that those 6,000 words are the only meaningful writing I’ve done since since August.

I write for fun. Primarily, I write plays. I produced a few of them in high school, and I count those memories as some of the best that I created in those four years. Writing and bringing those works to the stage was an absurd process, both highly stressful and unbelievably rewarding. There’s nothing in the world like the realization on opening night that you’ve managed to trick 150 otherwise highly intelligent people into a room to watch something that you, for better or for worse, dragged out of yourself—and you don’t even have to lock the doors to get them to stay past the first ten minutes (most of the time).

Now, I’m busy. I’m a lot busier than I’ve ever been. I don’t know how I did it in high school (sans procrastination, probably), but between hanging out with friends, getting the minimal number of hours of sleep advised by the Surgeon General, and performing the Sisyphean task of keeping up with the beast that is the course load, I haven’t had the time to write for fun; not beyond a few words here and there.

I don’t think I’m alone here. A lot of us have passion projects: films we make, poems we write, robots we build, cakes we bake, songs we sing. I’m even referring to less lofty projects: creating dream boards and listening to inspirational TED Talks on the nature of a creative soul. Those are all well and good. So is doing your homework, or texting friends, or taking a nap. They all have their place. The problem is, with all that Columbia demands of us in order to “flourish” on campus, it leaves very little time in which to work on passion projects.

I think that all but the most dedicated of us come to Columbia and, at the very least, find it difficult to make the time to continue these endeavors. Stuff gets in the way, understandably. You go downtown for a night, or you have a 10-page paper to write, or you get caught up at JJ’s. Whatever the excuse, my projects have languished in a drawer. And they’re not aging well.

Attending Columbia can be a protection against those pesky things called “hobbies” you used to have back in high school. For us non-athletic regular people, or NARPs, who aren’t on any varsity teams, maybe there’s an inkling of a desire to join the club floor hockey team or the intramural volleyball league because of what we played in high school. But we don’t have the evening hours to commit to both practice and studying for that chem test. We used to play the saxophone or do puzzles or help out at the local soup kitchen. If you’re still doing at least one of those things you consider a hobby, I extend my congratulations. Did you still have to drop other things you enjoyed doing in order to have the time to do everything else that college expects you to do? I did.

Reading’s another thing. Of course, I’m not referring to pages 64 to 89 of your history textbook that were assigned last Tuesday. I’d be willing to wager that a lot of us who accidentally wandered onto the Morningside Heights campus and have now found ourselves enrolled as students read for pleasure. Not all of us, certainly, but a lot of us could probably be found this past summer pawing through an old copy of Harry Potter while on our breaks or lying on the beach reading a paperback.

I’ve talked to a lot of people on campus about this: no time for reading for fun—a bit ironic given that one of Columbia’s specific supplementary essays asks you to “list what you read for pleasure in the past year.” Aside from what books I can manage to tear through over the holidays, it’s embarrassing that this list, were I to revise it from when I applied to Columbia, would be so, so much shorter. Because for my part, I only find the time to read for fun when I’m on the subway alone. And I’m not on the subway alone a whole lot.

But the bottom line is this: Brené Brown has said it doesn’t matter what you do, “As long as [you’re] creating, [you’re] cultivating meaning.” You could look at it from the perspective that “creating” your final paper for your history class is a means to cultivate meaning, but I doubt that flimsy argument would stand on its own two legs for very long. When it comes down to it, we’re made up of what we make. And our school should be trying to aid us in that cultivation of meaning, and the self as a result—not, even if inadvertently, stifling it.

I should make time. I’m not here to preach or complain. It’s all in our hands—how much time we choose to devote to each aspect of our lives—no matter how much it feels like it isn’t. There’s a perfect formula out there for how to balance it all. I’m not much of a scientist; I haven’t found it yet. For now, the winter break is coming up. For the first time in four years, I’ll have no post-holiday exams to prepare for during that time. Maybe I’ll start cultivating meaning again. Maybe I’ll get some real work done.

AJ McDougall is a Columbia College first-year working (very slowly) on her fourth full-length play. You Have My Word ran alternate Wednesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact

passion hobbies reading writing business