I’ve been “writing” this last column in my head for weeks now. Little bits and pieces of incoherent thoughts pop up here and there, but the pieces are scattered and out of place. I’ve always found the hardest thing about writing to be cementing a beginning, middle and end. It’s because we know, in theory, what we want to say, but putting it into words suddenly makes it an incomprehensible muddle.
Writing is my way of trying to make sense of things. Writing is my method of wrestling down the nonsensical, or at least a good, solid attempt of trying to do so. I started writing when I was searching for myself sophomore year, and in some form or another, I haven’t stopped. I won’t let myself stop. I force myself to sit in front of that perpetually haunting blank page until I write or type out one sentence that I’ve been replaying in my head over and over. That one sentence then builds into more detail, more complexity, until there’s an essay—a new thought, a new little discovery.
Writing a column this semester has been my way of trying to make sense of my time here at Duke. I haven’t exactly loved Duke. I haven’t exactly hated Duke. My feelings about Duke and of my time here are quite complicated. It’s the type of story that lacks clarity, and for good reason. Duke has, undeniably, changed me and turned me into a better and truer version of the person I was when I first came here. I describe myself most assuredly as a feminist and a writer—two parts of a new whole that has Duke written all over it.
I used to think there was some value in dwelling on why I changed. Now I’m just glad that I did.
Even the difficult moments—the ones that now leave me feeling rather ambivalent—brought about a heightened self-awareness that forced me to ask myself: Who am I, and what do I want? I like this version of myself a lot, but even so, I am who I am, because of both the good and the bad—the low-lows and the high-highs.
In a perfect world, maybe I could shuffle the narrative around a bit and pick and choose, but alas…such is life.
Writing demands that we be brutally honest with ourselves. Writing forces us to try to put into words the indescribable and contextualize the unintelligibility that most authentically defines what it means to live. This is good. This is productive. It is also painful. It means that we have to pause, sit down and make sense of the past before we can understand all the rest. It means running the risk of taking things too personally and feeling everything too deeply. It means letting your mind go to a place where maybe questions can only be answered with more questions and hard-fast truths are unpacked to nothingness.
When I talk about my Duke experience as “complicated,” what I’m really getting at is how I’ve grown stronger from my disappointments here. I like to think of it as a way of owning up to the weirdness of having the good mired in the bad. Maybe it’s even the realization that somewhere between that numb feeling of disappointment and revelation, something clicked.
When I was younger, one of my favorite songs was “Best Imitation of Myself” by Ben Folds Five. I used to sit cross-legged on my bed, playing that song over and over. The magic for me was in those opening lines, “I feel like a quote out of context / Withholding the rest / So I can be for you what you want to see…” I knew that I was too concerned with what others thought of me during my impressionable teenage years. On some level, I was incredibly insecure, and I found some comfort in my hometown hero, Ben Folds, making art out of the messiness of feeling like an outsider. I’ve always identified with that sense of being a “quote out of context,” but my relationship to it has changed. I no longer see it as a weakness or coming from a place of insecurity. It simply just is.
All of my columns this semester have been an attempt to pin down a contextual narrative that speaks to the two questions of “who am I and what do I want?” By telling stories and carving out this space, my intention was to write about writing and how through the act of writing, our stories can write us into crystallizing clarity. I don’t see it as navel-gazing or self-indulgent. It’s just one way of demanding more space in our busy lives for stories and for narrative.
We can’t live a life void of its context, and yet we do.
We define ourselves by our majors and our jobs (or lack thereof). We spend the better parts of our lives transcribing our achievements into a series of bullet points on a resume. We let superficial observations and idle gossip mark our judgment of others. Our communication with one another lacks face-to-face togetherness. We cut out the “complicated,” because it’s just easier that way.
Without narrative, it’s all just noise.
Danielle Nelson is a Trinity senior. This is her final column of the semester. Send Danielle a message on Twitter @elleeenel.