Tonight was my first time back as a student in a classroom in just over eight years. (The last time was in early December of 2004, but most of that period was a blur as it was overshadowed by the gargantuan annual Christmas concert.)
Around Thanksgiving (actually, it may have been on Thanksgiving Day) I decided to quit dancing around the issue and actually register for a creative writing course. This was shortly after attending the intro session at Hamline University for the Creative Writing master’s program, and I was afraid of losing momentum, so with my boyfriend’s encouragement and support I signed up for a creative nonfiction course.
It’s so funny that after all this time I’ve landed in nonfiction and essay. As a kid and then as a teen I was a voracious reader and writer of fiction. Then music took over my life in college. Four years later and I was well surfeited of music to the point where I couldn’t even listen to it for almost two years. This was when I discovered audiobooks and public radio, and rediscovered my love of words and language.
All last week I tried not to think about the course very much, aside from the logistics of getting there and being prepared in terms of bringing materials. I didn’t want to have any expectations going in for fear of being disappointed once there. The course itself is geared towards writers working on book-length projects that center around personal experience. The minute I read the description it seemed perfect for me!
“Hmm. Do I have a compelling experience?” I rhetorically asked Jason.
He thought it sounded like something I should definitely go for.
I tried not to think too much about my future classmates, or the instructor, who they might be, how much more experience they might have than me, and how inadequate I might feel in comparison. After all, I have limited academic writing experience, and no training in literary theory or criticism. I’m mostly self-trained, with the majority of my learning coming from having honest friends read and edit my work (that is, friends who are readers and not interested in stroking my ego).
And then there’s my competitive streak, which is a mile wide, and armed with sharp teeth, claws and a degree of selfish ambition. I often describe this part of me as almost pure Id, my primal lizard self largely dominated by fear, and concerned chiefly with beating other lizards (or at least driving them off) and getting what it wants. It’s this part of me that set out to crush my younger sisters’ desires to pursue music, or at least to play the piano. That was my purview. Claws off, thank you very much.
It comes down to my own anxiety over feeling insignificant, and my sense of self-worth being tied into what I produce and do. It’s why I settled on composition in college. I was good at it, there were many other competent pianists there to show me up for the mediocre keyboardist I was, and it was an area I could easily establish myself in and defend against challengers. It’s sad to think how much time and energy I’ve wasted and how many relationships I’ve cheated myself of worrying about that.
The class itself was delightful. Writing courses are so different from other classroom courses. It’s less about listening to a lecture as doing and sharing actual writing. Our instructor did most of the talking tonight, as is often the case with the first day of any class, but aside from going over course expectations, we talked about writing, developing and describing our book/story project proposals, and working on the writing exercises our instructor gave us.
The challenge in writing personal nonfiction, she said, was moving from personal experience to finding meaning within that. It’s one thing to tell your story. It’s another to find the deep threads in it that will resonate with and inspire your readership. Why does this story matter to me? she asked. What’s at stake in it for me?
The first exercise we did was a sensory one, asking What have I seen that no one else in this room has seen? Ditto for hearing, smell, taste, touch, then to what no one else has done, been, knows, and are. What’s the exotic landscape or object that a reader can connect with? Basically, what’s the personal connection that will tap into the passion and love that will inspire people to keep reading? It’s not enough to know your story. Why is it worth writing about?
I was fascinated and excited to discover that the guy sitting next to me was also working on a story about losing his faith. The lady next to him is working on a memoir about going back to school as a radiology technician after the last of her kids left home, and she had to figure out who she was all over again while learning to work in a largely male-dominated field. Another woman has a first draft of a manuscript about her year recovering from cancer, but is struggling to find the inner story and the meaning within the experience.
As each of went around at the end of the evening, introducing ourselves and describing the subject we’re planning to write about, it was remarkable to notice some of the common links and themes between each story. Of course, the challenge for each of us will be finding what’s compelling about each of our stories, but it reminds me yet again how interesting people really are, how vital it is to tell each other our stories, and how much experience is lost to the act of getting through the day.
I have no illusions that this will be easy. But for the first time in a while I feel like I’m heading in the right direction.