In recent months I had the very strange experience of breathing after being under water for a very long time.
I had not realized that I was under water. We very rarely do, I think, just like we don’t realize how bad a particular relationship was for us until we’ve so thoroughly removed ourselves from it that we can look back and say “Sweet baby Jesus what was I thinking?” It was particularly hard to identify because it still seemed like I was doing the things I loved. I was writing again after a long period of not even turning on my computer. I was doing yoga. I was meditating. I was spending time with friends.
All the while I had no idea I was so sedated, to borrow the term from Lester Burnham. I wrote like it had been assigned to me, and I operated within a spiritual framework I had constructed around myself which justified my doing so. The characters were flat and while I was frustrated with my inability to figure out why, I put minimal effort into trying to fix it. I glided through the world not much caring and I did my best to look everywhere but there.
While registering for spring term classes I discovered, with no small amount of agitation, that the class I needed to fulfill my comparative literature major requirements was full. No need to worry, though – there were other credits which needed filling, so I found a creative writing class that would do the trick. It was the only creative writing class which I hadn’t taken before, which I had the pre-reqs to get into, and which wouldn’t overlap my Swedish class. It was four hours after Swedish got out, however, which put a bit of a dent in my availability at work, but I needed the class so I bit the bullet and registered.
We were twenty plus one GTF crammed into a tiny corner room on a floor filled with professor’s offices. The corner of the room was constructed of windows which looked over a little courtyard below and peered into the green yard outside the library. Though it was crowded and we could never fit enough chairs around the table for everyone in class, I liked that room. It was, I thought, a good room.
Teacher passed out the first piece of short literature we would be reading that term: Pet Milk by Stuart Dybek. We read it in class and discussed it, in much the same manner we would later discuss our own writings. Teacher’s enthusiasm for the literature was not only obvious and exciting, it was infectious and invigorating. Hearing everyone else in the room join in that conversation with him – what made the story work so well, what parts stood out, the beauty of the language, how that one phrase, “She had lovely knees,” says so much about the narrator, how closely he’s looking, how much he loves her because only someone who loves her would look closely enough to notice the loveliness of her knees –
How was this real life? How I was accidentally trapped in this tight, close room overlooking the green and talking about the magic of words with twenty other people? I felt like I was in love. It was the kind of overflowing feeling I hadn’t been particularly interested in feeling in almost a year and, before that, in almost four.
At some point, after discussing my story with Teacher and feeling the terrible kind of curiosity that makes you a little bit stupid, I asked Teacher about himself. He was leaving after this term, I recalled – why? Well, because he was graduating. I hadn’t realized until that moment that he was a GTF. What was his degree? Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing.
You can do that?
Apparently. And I wanted to do it, too. I was excited to write again – I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t want to let that feeling go. It was precious and rare and I’d forgotten how nice it was…how it made life thrilling and exciting, like around every corner I might definitely find the end of the rainbow at long last. It made me want to dance in the rain again – it really had been too long, after all.
But what can you do with an MFA? I scoffed at myself, as I have become so good at doing in the past couple of unnoticeably gray years. There would be no point. It would be investing more time and money into school which I couldn’t afford. I barely believed in the legitimacy of the education I was all ready paying for, let alone something like that.
So I talked myself out of thinking about it. But somewhere I was hoarding away this little nugget, snuggling it and petting it and keeping it tucked safely away.
Then I ran into N, one of my fellow classmates. We’d never talked before but we struck up a conversation there on the sidewalk (perhaps the most bizarre first conversation I’ve ever had the pleasure of indulging in, covering everything from how workshops were going and favorite authors and stories cigars and great drinks you absolutely have to try to World War Two and Holocaust deniers). At some point I mention the MFA, telling N that it would be so cool to do something like that, but I just can’t…
“Why not?” he asked.
When I opened my mouth to reply, all of my excuses seemed stupid. So I closed my mouth and didn’t say anything.
Sometimes I feel like being so invested in story telling might hinder my ability to function in the world. I see stories where, logically, there is only randomness and chaos and I read meaning into every little gesture, every little word. I am often afraid that, because I do this, my ability to function in the world might be (or must be) hindered. Interactions become infinitely more complex and difficult to navigate when you’re constantly trying to read between the lines.
But then moments like these happen.
Teacher said, frequently, that the function of a story is to force the character to look where they don’t want to look, to see what they don’t want to see. A successful story should change the character, even if only by a near unnoticeable fraction. Take a (proverbial, of course) blind man, he said, and turn him just a fraction of an inch and send him in a straight line, he’ll end up somewhere vastly different than he would have had you left him alone.
That was one of those moments for me. For a second, life was a story, and it didn’t involve reading between the lines or trying to finding meaning where there inherently was none. It was a passing, nothing of an interaction – but it made me look at something which, left to my own devices, I probably never would have looked at. (Thanks, N.)
As class continued my courage mounted. I decided to stop talking about studying at Uppsala University in Sweden and actually do something about it. I made an appointment with the Uppsala guy and ended up walking him to coffee. I asked Teacher about the MFA program, if he thought it was worth it. To sum up his response: “Most definitely.” Going above and beyond the call of his GTF’s duty, he helped me figure out what my first steps in getting into a program are.
Most importantly, I’m writing again.
And I feel it.
Here’s the thing about me: I have always told stories. Before I could write I asked my mom to write the stories down for me. It’s something that’s in me, something that’s a part of me, something which I cannot separate from myself. If I am anything, I am a writer. How weird is it that writing that makes me tear up? As though the joy of rediscovering this is so overwhelming that it’s about to tear me apart.
I’m writing again, and I’m loving it. I’m passionately in love with the stories I’m telling and the characters struggling through them. I might be even more in love with writing than I was before. The process of revision isn’t the horror it once was. Now it’s getting to re-imagine the characters to make them stronger, more vibrant, more alive, to make their stories all the more worth telling, and now I don’t only have the tools to do that, I also know how to use them.
It was like waking up from a long dream.
Like breathing after being underwater too long.