I have a deck of cards filled with “Would you rather…?” scenarios. The cards ask scintillating questions such as, “Would you rather spend a 24-hour period hearing car alarms in your head –OR– the sound of a dentist’s drill?” and “Would you rather write ‘I am an idiot’ 10,000 times without stopping –OR– suck 75 thick milkshakes through a narrow straw without resting (no need to swallow all the shakes)?”
Here’s a question that’s not in the deck: Imagine you have an injury. Would you rather ignore it and let it heal, but be left with a nasty scar that sometimes spasms unexpectedly with sharp pain –OR– pick off the scab every time it forms, making the wound fresh and raw again, occasionally pouring lemon juice or some other stinging substance into the exposed wound; but thus enabling the wound to heal completely (or as completely as possible, with perhaps some light scarring)?
Back in September when I first started grad school, I chose option 2. I turned in my first workshop piece, 10 pages detailing my initial therapy session after I returned from Afghanistan; all my fears, anxieties, and confusions. All my baggage. I had known my classmates for approximately a day. And I showed them my wounds, let them watch as I ripped off the scabs. I might as well have offered them lemon juice.
As if that wasn’t enough, I did it again and again over the next four months, with two more workshop pieces, two papers, and many candid discussions. Because that’s what personal nonfiction writing is all about; turning yourself inside out, exposing your scars and imperfections in a way that’s honest and (hopefully) resonant.
And when it comes down to it, that’s what healing is about too. Then you patch up the wounds and turn yourself right-side-out again and the scars aren’t quite as visible; like the inside stitching along a seam. If, on the other hand, you ignore those wounds, though it may feel better initially, eventually they begin to fester. There’s a word for that . . . oh yeah, its denial. Usually nothing good comes from that.
I was a bit in denial when I first arrived in Boston for grad school. And I was afraid. Afraid of going “back there;” of digging back into that dark part of my life. Afraid of opening myself up, of the negative response I might receive. Thankfully, I received a tremendously positive response. And in submitting that first piece, I started chipping away at a barrier – a barrier I need to get through to heal, and also to be the writer I want to be.
Writing (or talking) about personal stuff is hard. It’s emotionally draining. When I shut my laptop after an evening of writing I feel emptied out; exhausted with the effort of coaxing images from a closed-off corner of my mind, spinning them into words and pushing them from my head through my muscles and bones – with a long layover at my heart – before they finally patter out into my keyboard.
But it’s also strangely therapeutic. To flush out that corner of my mind. To not be in denial. (They say that’s the first step to recovery, right?) When I see the words on the page they seem tangible. Manageable. Not so overwhelming after all.
And perhaps most significantly, people appreciate that honesty.
Because in order to truly connect with someone, you have to make yourself vulnerable, and you have to trust. That’s something on some level I’ve always known, but struggled to accomplish behind adolescent insecurities. And while there’s a trust in the military – an incredible life and death kind of trust – it’s physical more than emotional. It’s an understatement to say that vulnerability isn’t exactly encouraged in the military.
So grad school represented a bit of an aligning of the planets for me – a time when I needed that connection desperately, when I was in a place where it was offered, and when I was finally mature enough to handle it. My classmates and I bonded over our vulnerability. Sometimes we joke that our classroom discussions are like group therapy. When you’re all inside-out together, no one has reason to be ashamed.
As I look back on my first semester of grad school, that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned.
Here’s some other stuff I learned:
- You can walk pretty much anywhere in Boston. It is not recommended to do so wearing heels or Converse tennis shoes.
- The green line is never on time.
- Crosswalks are merely a suggestion.
- On average, it takes approximately five MFA students approximately 10 minutes to figure out how to divide a restaurant bill. We could write you a dissertation on the quality of the food, but don’t ask us to do math . . .
- Cheetos, Twizzlers and chocolate DO NOT constitute a balanced meal. But they really do help me write papers.
- Writers and cats seem to go hand-in-hand. (An informal poll that I just ran in my head shows a disproportionate number of my classmates have cats. But then again I’m not great at math.)
Thanks to my amazing colleagues at Emerson for your honesty, feedback, support and inspiration. I’m looking forward to working with you for the next 83% of the program! (That math is right, trust me).
Oh, in case you’re curious, I would opt for the dentist’s drill and the milkshakes.