We met in a tiny room in the Allen Building for one of those long once-a-week super-classes. It was the second semester of my junior year, and I came back to Duke after spending the Fall semester abroad feeling restless. Time was “running out” for me to learn how to be a writer. While I was abroad, one of the essays I submitted to the popular millennial blog, Thought Catalog, had been miraculously picked from the bottomless slush pile. Getting published and seeing my work in “print” up there on the site was thrilling. It was a feeling that escapes words, as ironic as that may sound. The only trouble was that all I wanted to do now was write.
I heard about this professor’s writing course from some of my friends in Madrid, but, after registration, I ended up number two on the waitlist. I begged the professor to let me enroll, and, in utter desperation, I sent him nearly all of the writing samples I could dig up from my then paucity of online writings. Eventually, reluctantly, he gave me a permission number to the class.
I ended up having a difficult time that semester. Everything I wrote was unfocused and plot-less with frilly language that seemed to be driven more by my trying to prove that I could write rather than actually writing a compelling piece of autobiographical fiction.
One of the few times that I workshopped a piece I wrote in class, he looked up from the papers scattered in front of him and, in an exasperated voice, pointed to certain phrases and descriptions that were too writer-ly and overly ornate. Then he cleared his throat and from across the table said in a straightforward no-nonsense way, “Explain to me why I should even read this? It’s disconnected, no story arc. There’s no narrative. The problem isn’t with the language…”
A few weeks later, during one of our tangential, off-topic class discussions, the Steubenville case came up. Someone muttered an insensitive comment reducing the incident to a mistake in leaving behind traces of evidence on social media rather than the crime and the assault itself. I raised my hand and said, “I don’t think that is the takeaway from Steubenville…”
It was enough to start an entirely different conversation, and we quickly devolved into a heated debate about the trial and the topic of rape culture. I felt terrible for causing the disruption. I thought maybe I was too sensitive. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut and let it go. Choose your battles, as they say.
The following class, the professor walked into the room and slid a book down the length of the table.
“Here, Danielle. I found this and thought you might like it.”
It was a thick pale yellow book titled “Women Writers at Work,” chock full of “The Paris Review” interviews with a lot of big name women writers, poets, essayists—some that I immediately recognized, others that I hadn’t yet encountered. But aside from the celebration of these female writers whose work remains undeniably remarkable in its own right, the interviews were something else entirely. Sure, each writer talked about the “writing process,” her literary influences, how she came into her own particular style, but each interview in a meta-way managed to write its own narrative of the writer’s relationship to her work. It’s as if in that moment—only through the act of writing about her writing, as well as about language— the writer came face-to-face with herself. In the span of 20 or 30 or so pages, the interviews had it all—the excitement, the isolation, the tediousness, the solitude, the frustration, the painful uncertainty, the sense of accomplishment and quasi-self-fulfillment.
But as I thumbed through the collection, reading interview after interview, I realized that, in all my failed writing projects, I had been writing about myself, but not from myself. What I mean is that I was too distracted by finding the right words and writing the “right” way to really sink into the language—to give the words enough time to figure out what story they wanted to tell.
The only piece of writing I managed to finish for that creative writing class was my final project—a 30-plus page personal narrative I started working on over Spring Break. I had just finished reading “The Bell Jar” for the first time and Sylvia Plath’s writing, in a way, woke me up. There was a certain intensity to her writing voice that seemed to draw her reader in by saying, “Look, I have a story to tell, and I’m laying it all there on the page. Take it or leave it.”
The truth is, I hardly did any writing that semester. Yes, it was frustrating, and, yes, it was unnerving. There’s nothing worse than wanting to write so badly and struggling to cobble even two words together. But it was in these moments of creative panic, and by reading these women writers talk about their work and their relationship to language, that I understood what words can do if you let them.
All I really had to do was trust a little more, try a little less and dig a little bit deeper.
Danielle Nelson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Send Danielle a message on Twitter @elleeenel.