On weekday mornings, as Bowdoin summer fellows rush off to jobs in laboratories and office buildings, Dakota Griffin ’19 prepares herself for a day of writing. She often writes at the desk in her room and allows time for a gentle start to the day. “I don’t have a nine to five, so I can drag my feet a little bit, eat breakfast.”
Griffin, an English major and recipient of a Bowdoin summer grant, the Surdna Undergraduate Research Fellowship, has devoted her summer to crafting a fantasy novel. The fellowship, one of more than 200 awarded to Bowdoin students this summer, lets her pursue her passion full time, something she has never done before. “I have been able to put all my and energy into it, which is a fantastic feeling, something a lot of writers don’t get,” Griffin said. “Most people in the US who write have a full-time job, and then they write books.”Griffin’s book mixes fantasy and reality to tell the story of 24-year-old Victor Cruz, a magic-less man in a world of modern-day magicians. “So everyone is walking around with an iPhone and Facebook, but most people can summon fire in their hand,” explained Griffin. Faced with trouble at home, Victor decides to sell his soul to a mysterious being in exchange for the powers he never had. This ends as badly as one would expect, and Victor must reunite with his old high school friends in an attempt to save his life.
As Griffin describes it, the idea for the novel came to her while driving home to Mahwah, New Jersey from Bowdoin: “I was thinking about how if something went bad at home, I would have to drop out. My brain, because I always wrote stories, began to spin that. How can I turn this from a dark anxiety in the back of my head into something productive?” Griffin said. This, along with her interest in the fantasy genre, lead to the line that helped inspire the book: “Yeah, I dropped out of grad school to help my best friend, who sold his soul to a monster, but what else are friends for?”
The book uses wit and tongue-in-cheek humor to make light of Victor’s grim situation. Griffin feels this is crucial to the tone of the novel: “Even when we are facing the darkest and harshest moments of our lives, they are not devoid of humor. Our friends are still making stupid jokes and we are still trying to make things brighter than they seem. So comedy is important.”
While Griffin’s job may allow her a greater degree of freedom than most research fellows, she has to get inventive to ensure her productivity stays high. She was inspired by a favorite writer, Victoria Schwab, to maintain a “star chart” which she fills out daily. “You literally take those foil stars that you have in third-grade classrooms,” Griffin said. When she writes 500 words, she gives herself a gold star. When she reads fifty pages in books suggested by her advisor, she gets a silver star. “Being able to stick the stars on the stupid poster at the end of the day really helps with accountability,” she said.
Griffin has always considered writing a possible career but did not start creative writing at Bowdoin until after her junior-year abroad program in England, when she had a one-on-one tutorial with a British author, and took a speculative fiction class. After returning to campus, she doubled down on her creative writing aspirations and secured the summer fellowship to write.
“Oh yeah, this is the dream,” said Griffin. “If I could do nothing but write books all day long for the rest of my life, I would be really happy.”