Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steps ahead of here

The first time I stepped in "The Quad" at the University of Washington - the grassy lane split in two by a brick pathway and lined with trees that bloom in pink cotton candy and strawberry swirl yogurt in the spring - I nearly forgot I was in Seattle.  I might be on Harvard's campus, I thought, with the aura of history seeping into my skin.  Always a sucker for classic architecture, I could stand and gaze up at the beauty of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century buildings for a long time.  Their elegantly long, lead paned windows, the washed out stone and brick exteriors, the Dickens' style black lamp posts heralding the way up marbled stairways to wooden double doors and the scent of old beckoning to me.  Deep down, I wished I could be a student in one of those classrooms above The Quad.  I coveted the UW students, with their access to the stunning Suzzallo Library.  Now that's a real university library.  But I'd already finished college and didn't have any intention of applying for one of their grad programs.

Seven years later, I'm studying my campus map, trying to find my way to the first evening of a nonfiction writing course.  I pass Suzzallo Library with a little sigh of pleasure, and shortly after, spot Smith Hall on a sign outside a building.  The building I had stood in front of on that first visit, wishing to be a student inside.  I break into a private grin.  This is too good to be true.  I take my time up the steps, open the door, inhale the history.  

I'm actually nervous for this class.  Here writing has always been my strongest subject, I've graduated with two degrees and I write nearly every day, but still I feel small and vulnerable.  Maybe most artists feel this way each time we lay open our artistic passion, the work of our hands and minds and hearts, spreading it before strangers and inviting criticism.  Maybe this is why I feel so small, like a child.  I have published nothing.  I possess no outstanding credentials.  I simply love to write, am compelled to write.  I know I must open myself to challenge, to stretch beyond what I know and risk not being great.  And so I'm here, in this class, filled with excitement and a case of nerves.

Halfway through the class, I'm looking around the room really questioning, "Should I be here?"  It sounds like a class for aspiring journalists, for writers of science and academia, not for personal narrative.  I squirm at the thought of being asked to squeeze my writing into report formats again, to stifle my in-the-moment style for something stuffed with facts and research.  I'm nearly convinced toward the end of class that this is a mistake, but I force myself to stay after and speak with the professor.  In the end, I tell him of my admiration for Tracy Kidder, of Mountains beyond mountains and Strength in what remains.  I want to be able to write like that, but I'm afraid and I don't tell him that.  I tell him I guess I need to learn the skills this class offers, and I shake hands and walk out feeling discouraged.  I walk back through campus, along the lamp illuminated pathway, and the light slowly flickers on in my cluttered thoughts.

I'm afraid because this class requires me to write not where I'm at in this moment, but where I want to be in the future.  To write steps ahead, where it seems beyond the grasp of my skills, beyond what I know I'm good at.  And there it is once more, shoddily disguised: I don't want to find out I'm not good enough to be this kind of writer.

I sigh and my jaw tightens in a resigned determination.  I cannot run.  I must stay and risk this or I will never know what I can do beyond what I know.  

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