2017, Archives, May 2017, The MFA Years

Finding My Discomfort Zone

Image: Trung Bui Viet

In my first class on creative nonfiction this past April, I sat down in the workshop, excited, a little nervous, but fundamentally reassured by one thought: I wasn’t going to be any good at the class anyway, so I didn’t have to worry too much about mastering the finer points of the memoir or essay. I was taking nonfiction because in my MA program, we are required to take one class outside of our genre. Since I’m a fiction writer, that meant choosing between poetry and nonfiction.

 When I was in undergrad, I took one fateful poetry workshop. It was actually my first workshop experience. I wasn’t much of a poet, or at least I didn’t consider myself to be one, but it was easier to get accepted into a poetry workshop than a fiction workshop, so I took the chance to be in it when it was offered, knowing that I wasn’t going to be the star of the class. I brought in my painful clichéd breakup poems every week and cringed whenever it was the class’s turn to discuss my poetry. I marveled at the ability of other students to conjure dazzling images that spoke to my soul. I received an A-, which in an undergrad workshop, usually conveys the sentiment of “good effort, but you don’t have what it takes to do this for a living.” Or at least, that’s how I interpreted the grade at the time. I decided I would never be that good at poetry, especially since I didn’t really “get” poetry at the end of the day, so it was better for me to quit while I was ahead.

In grad school, I was certain that I would be paralyzed by my own inadequacy in a grad school poetry workshop. So I opted for nonfiction.

Still, I didn’t go into nonfiction intending to become good at it. I took it thinking I might write some fun and interesting things, but I approached the course with the comforting knowledge that next term I would go back to my relatively safe bubble of fiction writing.

As someone who always approached academic achievement way too seriously, I never learned how to fail gracefully. It’s a common feeling among young adults, like me, who are extremely insecure. If we start something new, something difficult, something we won’t be good at immediately, we get discouraged. We view initial failure as a sign that we’re not talented at a particular thing, and we don’t remember that it takes a long time and lots of practice to show results.

The first day of my nonfiction class, our professor had us do a writing exercise using “glimmers” from our memories as launching points for narrative. My first reaction to this somewhat daunting exercise: Self-sabotage. I declared to everyone around me that I was no good at remembering details and used this as an excuse for why I couldn’t come up with interesting memories, instead of actually trying to do what the professor was asking.

Then, for the next class, she asked us to take the glimmers we had come up with and weave them together into an essay. Part of me wanted to rebel against the unfairness of the writing prompt. The three “glimmers” we had come up with in class had nothing to do with one another. How was I supposed to force them into a narrative? I struggled, and managed to cobble them together. It was an overbearing essay, one in which I showed too much of my own thought process on the page. Handing it in the next week, I felt embarrassed, while also vindicated. I knew I wouldn’t be any good at the class. Here was proof.

The second week, we were given another tricky assignment. At this point, I was panicking, wondering how I would get words down on a page when I couldn’t seem to censor my own thoughts as I wrote. I didn’t want to actually be bad at nonfiction; I just wanted the expectations to be set low for me. At this point, I had heard some samples of writing from classmates and read some essays assigned for class, so I knew what potential existed in nonfiction. Before this class, I had never really experienced the pleasure of reading nonfiction essays that flow from one idea to the next like water falling down a smooth stone, or the satisfaction of reading pieces that clash one violent idea against the next like a discordant symphony that merges to create something greater, something volatile and marvelous. I didn’t know how I would make something similar, but I knew I at least wanted to try.

I turned in the next two assignments, knowing they were not perfect, but excited to show them to my professors and classmates. One of them I loved so much that I read it aloud at a reading for creative writing grad students.

Once I started writing essays fiercely and joyfully, I couldn’t understand what I had been so afraid of that first week. Nonfiction overtook my writing life; it’s been over a month since I’ve entered into a fictional world in my writing. I almost don’t want to go back, but I can’t tell how much my newfound infatuation with the essay is genuine and how much stems from the relief of breaking out of my genre and stretching my arms for the first time in what feels like ages.

Now that my first year of grad school is coming to a close, and my creative nonfiction workshop is almost over, I’ve felt the anxiety of what-comes-next creeping up on me. In my second year I’ll be teaching an introductory creative writing course that I don’t yet feel prepared to teach. How can I teach a course on writing fiction, when I still know so little about it? And then I’ll also start writing my thesis. When I think about the challenges ahead, I waver back and forth between eagerness— let’s just get on with this already— and fear— am I setting myself up for failure?

This quarter, all of my classes have dragged me out of my comfort zone. Not only am I taking creative nonfiction, but I am also taking a literary seminar focusing on avant-garde poetry, a subject that I never thought I would remotely understand. I still don’t really “get” it, but at least now I can say I’ve tried to puzzle through language poetry and conceptualism, even if it left me feeling disoriented and frustrated. These courses, by challenging me to go outside of the boundaries of what I know, have  reminded me why I write in the first place: writing refuses to be confined to a straightforward hierarchy of GPA (apart from the grades you receive in workshop, but as everyone knows, grad school grades are mostly immaterial).

Writing does not conform to a binary; it’s not something I can just succeed at or fail at. In fact, it doesn’t even have a strict set of rules. Like the Pirate’s Code in the original Pirates of the Caribbean film, not its horrific spawn currently out in theaters, rules for writing are more like guidelines anyway. And because writing is tricky, because it’s hard to pin down, hard to improve at, I can keep working on it indefinitely and never feel like my work is done. Writing is a challenge worth taking on, in grad school and in life, a quantum game of buried treasure in which the X that marks the spot is constantly disappearing and reappearing in unlikely places so that you can never find it with complete certainty. After one year in grad school, I’ve finally started to get my bearings, to know which way is north and which way is east, but I’ve still got a long journey ahead of me in search of gold.

Unlike most of my peers, I still have a couple weeks ahead of me before the school year wraps up. The quarter system makes it so that my school year will end really late, in mid-June, and then only pick up again in late September. But I’ve got a full plate between now and the start of the next school year. I’m heading off to Europe on a personal and academic venture: I’ll be studying at the Prague Summer Program run through Western Michigan University for a month in July. Then when I come back, I’ll hopefully have a job teaching ESL courses through UC Davis extension for the month of August. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I still have a poetry paper and a nonfiction piece to write between now and summer.