For the past couple of weeks I’ve been cleaning, divesting, tossing, shredding, bagging up, dumping, recycling, whatevering all of the old stuff I no longer use or need. It is time to let go–if for no other reason than when we move again I would like to have a smaller truck.
I am not much of a packrat but I have certain items that I’ve clung to, such as each and every notebook I used and paper I wrote in college and grad school. I had them all stored in a dozen or so accordion files in a couple of large plastic tubs.
Why have I kept these things? I wonder if I felt they defined me. My mother never graduated from high school let alone college (though you could not tell that from meeting her) and my father died too young for me to take advantage of his education and intelligence. Anything I learned was hard won. I had to work my way through school and had to lose sleep in order to study. While my peers were out getting wasted, I was working in my family business for tips. But now I know that what I’ve learned doesn’t exist in a file folder.
I found my writings from my first creative writing class in undergrad. The professor was a poet but the course was to focus one half on poetry and one half on fiction. The backstory is that this particular professor was extremely fond of one of my older sisters who had gone to the same university. She was an exceptional poet and the star of the department as such.
I was not an exceptional poet, and, at the time, was distracted and not invested in my work. I had transferred schools after freshman year, only to end up exactly where I did not want to be–close to home in order to help out with the business. I took this course mostly because my sister’s poems had turned me inside out and I wanted to be able to do that to someone. But really, I’d been writing fiction since I was a child and didn’t realize then that there was so much more for me to learn.
My poems were horrible, embarrasingly so, and the professor cut me to shreds (as well he should have!). He was cruel and sarcastic and I don’t know how I didn’t come undone, but he was also right.
Did he help me become a better poet? I don’t know. I’m better than I was then but still not great and, honestly, I didn’t write poetry for a long time after that class. My fiction, though, that was a different story. Then he couldn’t get to me so much. In his comments, he expressed surprise about what I had written. Apparently, my poetry was so bad that he must have questioned whether I could write at all. I must have felt like I’d won to have gotten those comments. Actually, in reading his comments now, I still sort of do feel that way.
What I remember distinctly about that class now, is not anything he taught us, per se, but how he brought a visiting writer friend of his in to lecture us one day and the man told a story about how he was dating Judy Collins (now, I’m second guessing my memory) and how they were in Paris one November. He spoke of the light, the colors, his emotions. It was stirring and I remember leaving the room that day feeling as though I’d been somewhere.
Other memories are of the hippie girl whose brother died half-way through the course and she had to leave school (she came back though) and how the professor had our class and another of his to his bungalow for an end of semester party just before break. I was completely out of my element and fearful that people would find out I was a commuting student, which was almost as bad as being a townie (actually, it might have been worse) in the eyes of many. The party was awkward for me. The wine was bad and we were all underage but we drank it anyway. I drove home chastising myself for being shy. Hating myself for lacking talent, for not being a star in his eyes. Wishing I was other.
Then there was another fiction course and the professor was a writer of short stories. That was his love. And he was kind and open and empathetic and he gave us the best stuff to read. He encouraged me unabashedly and wrote on one of my stories, “I wish I had written this well when I was in college.” And later, “Keep going. You will be published one day. I promise.”
I don’t know if he could have known what those words meant to me then, and still do. Those stories and the ones from that other class, I keep–to remind me where I’ve been and where I’m going. To remind me why.
Then there was a time when I believed I would be a scholar. That I would finish my thesis and go and get my PhD. But I didn’t and I won’t. The truth is that grad school (I was going for my MA in literature and completed my two years of coursework) left me cold. Deconstructing literature left me deconstructed. I learned a lot in my course work but by the end of it, I felt I never wanted to read or discuss literature again. It may have surprised many people in my life that I ran away with the circus after grad school, but to me it was the most natural next step.
But in cleaning, I found all of the notes for my unfinished thesis. I will not bore you with the details of what it was on (for truly it is boring) but the process, I must admit, of discovery I went through is still fascinating to me. I love especially rereading the notes of my thesis advisor, whom I chose specifically because he was a hard ass. He wrung me through the wringer many a time–pointing out the holes in my sloppy argument and my lapses in clarity. And he was right.
Then I found the last thing I gave him–a clean draft of the introduction and first chapter. His note to me was jubilant. The final line of it was, “Nothing can stop you now.”
But something did stop me. Poverty and the need for a job. Also, a desire to break free and rediscover what it was I loved about literature and writing. Still, it makes me sad that just as I earned his hard-won approval, I was too beaten down to know that I needed it. But that I keep, too.
Nothing can stop me now.