On Learning Well (Or, The Art of Being Ready)

I am sitting on the bench in the hallway outside of the Writing Program office, working on a new piece, when the first student to have an appointment comes out to get me. Leaning out the door of the writing program offices, she says, “B’s ready for you.”

B is sitting in someone else’s office, her legs crossed and a bottle of Smart Water in her hand. I sit down, and she says, “You said you had some specific questions?”

I pull my workshop piece out of the portfolio and hand it to her. “Well, for starters…I honestly have trouble deciphering your handwriting.”

B takes the piece from me and turns it to the back page. She reads the words she has written out loud, pointing to each line as she reads so I can learn to understand her choppy lettering. She hands it back when she is finished. “The main issue I have with this piece,” she begins as she leans back in her chair, “is that I have no idea how the narrator gets to the hospital.  Did she drive herself? It seems to me that the narrator is more in control than she believes herself to be.”

I lean back in my own chair. “Okay.” I’m not sure what else to say. “What about the ethics of it?” I am still worried about this. “In terms of the book as a whole? Does this work as an opening? Do I need to give it a more happy ending?”

“The juxtaposition that you use shows the reader what you truly think now, as the writer. But it keeps them in the moment with the narrator. This is a powerful technique. You can’t worry now about the ending; you need to just let it come and the ending will shape itself.”

I make a swirling motion with my hands to try and simulate shaping, and B laughs.

“Tell me,” she prompts. “How did you get there?”

“Well…I drove there.”

“And do you remember that?”

“No.”

“Okay then.”

I put my hand out, palms up, in a gesture of helplessness. “Can I put it in there if I don’t totally remember it?”

“You can’t include a detail if you don’t remember it, if you don’t know it for sure. You have to, and you may not want to, I certainly wouldn’t want to, put yourself back there. Remember small details. You just need to thread it in somewhere, something that gives the narrator that credit that they aren’t quite getting. That solidifies her level of control even if she doesn’t know she has it.”

“I had the keys,” I say after a moment. “To the car. In my hand. It could be as simple as that, as a line.”

“Exactly,” B replies. “How did they feel? Focus on these small details. Play it up to draw the reader into the situation. You need to be careful not to overload it; this piece reads like fiction in that you immerse your reader in the story and we don’t want to leave it.”

“I used to write fiction,” I offer tentatively.

“Used to? What changed?” She takes a sip of her water.

“Well, I still do. But now I’m more nonfiction.”

“How did you end up here? What was your background?”

“More English literature than writing. We didn’t really have a writing program, through we had a writing track. I took what I could. There was one class, a nonfiction class, that really changed my thought process and my writing as a whole.”

B smiles. “That must have been some class.”

I nod. “It was. And then I went on to TA for the professor, N, for the next year, and I really learned a lot from her. I knew that this was what I wanted to do because she helped me figure out what sort of writer I was. What sort of story I wanted to tell.”

“This piece is excellent. Historical, in that it strongly captures your memory of the event. Whatever you learned from her, she taught you very well.”

I think back to a conversation N and I had when I was talking myself into going to the grad school program I really wanted, the one I am in now: “If my class was the only one that would have put you in debt, would you still take it?”

I would, ten times over. Because I am here now and wouldn’t be without that class.

I part telling her to read both Wild and Lucky, because I am planning out my next book; she gives me some suggestions, and closes with, “But you have the skills to do this on your own.”

And so I do.

N taught me well, yes. But I also came to her with a modicum of skill that she helped to cultivate. Now I am in this new place with new people who will take that skill and make it even better.

My old life tied to my new life tonight—my first truly fantastic graduate school experience.

I’m here. And I’m ready.

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