Two friends and I sat along three edges of a square table hidden in the corner of the campus student union. We were twenty-two years old and, though only 3 months separated from our undergraduate lives, teaching classes of our own in a subject we’d never studied.
We had been accepted into the school’s graduate program in literature, and the university graciously offered us an assistantship to cover our tuition. However, the job they offered was the sole instructor of a first-year composition course that (supposedly) set up freshmen to write proficiently in their intended majors. As if a fresh out-of-college English major knew what constituted good writing for higher-level courses for our school’s nursing program, a law degree, or the engineering department.
To make things a little more complicated, the director of the first-year composition program was a rhetorician and thus against the traditional philosophy for a composition program. and charged us to focus more on the ethics of argumentation than the construction. This meant we taught watered-down Aristotle rather than the list-driven grammarian E.B. Shrunk, or even the long-winded freewriter Peter Elbow.
In short, our university wanted one thing but our director wanted something completely different. I wasn’t sure whose side to be on because they were both equally unrealistic.
We had to see our director more so we took their side. But the course material was so weak. But, “watered-down” is an understatement when it came to our approach to rhetoric. Two thousand years’ worth of “new” thinking meant two thousand years’ worth of water trimming away at Aristotle’s ideological rock.
We taught an eroded Aristotle–whatever original mass there may have been had long been chewed away. Left in its place were three small rocks named logos, pathos, and ethos.
The curriculum was, frankly, patronizing. And while I felt bad about this I also did not want to promise them that I could actually teach them anything useful for the intended majors. I was stuck between two difficult places, and instead of facing it I fled to fiction.
On this day, these friends and I were out to coffee to share some of our work with each other. Not our course work, but our fiction attempts that we created in the secret corners of our busy days. As we slipped stapled stacks of paper from glossy folders, we looked behind us to make sure no student or director of ours would catch us. Both scenarios were worse.
If we saw a student or a director, we would stay motionless and silent. Usually, they would order their coffee and exit the cafe without looking around. Occasionally, however, they would see us. In these scenarios, I tried to make a smile and wave sufficient, but there were a few dense souls determined to speak with us. And, we’d resignedly descend from our fictional meeting place to a type of small talk that happens only in coffee shops.
In these moments, a fire raged inside me wishing they would go away I so could go back to fiction. I did not like to see students or directors because they represented the academic life. And fiction, for me, was directly non-academic. Writing stories allowed space in my life to be incorrect and imprecise. The academic in me would use those words but the fiction writer in me would prefer explorative and intuitive.
I had only been in graduate school for a few month, but I had already lost all feelings of intimacy for my essays. Instead, I found a personal, hypnotic reward from fiction, from reading a good story of mine out loud to others. In rare passages of un-reproducible excellence, I could lose myself within my narrator as he dissolved into the life of the character.
No amount of positive comments from a professor on an essay could compare with one look of delight from a friend in response to my fiction. One interruption of “Wow – that’s good” while I read from a chapter of my novel could keep me motivated to write until the next time we met–likely months from the day.
When in the middle of a large stretch between these meetings, I looked for literary community in a different, faceless place—a niche within a social media platform. Creating an account on this site using a coy pseudonym as a username, quoting Wordsworth in the bio, I connected myself with others who had the same idea.
As I entered this community, I found, as anyone would find anywhere, a certain locus of control from one powerful account. One user, @WriteLiving, had an eye-popping number of followers, and a consistent set of likes and shares – enough to make any aspiring writer impressed.
As for me, I was not just impressed. I spent hours scrolling through their posts, reading their stories, and wallowing in self-pity that I would never write like this person. I took word docs of my writing and minimized the window on my screen to can compare, paragraph by paragraph, their writing to my own. And my stories that I once thought were a lush green now seemed to me a dull brown.
I knew right away this was a mistake, but I couldn’t stop what happened next. I quit posting messages to the writing community, and I stopped writing altogether. I shifted my energy back to my essay work and class preparation. When I came home from work, I neglected the books of my shelves and turned on TV.
I had no story the next time my friends and I met. I hardly had thoughts to give in response to theirs, and, in a sad turn, I longed for the meeting to be over so I could chip away at my essay on the symbolic meaning of sweat within the dream poems of Geoffrey Chaucer.
One friend noticed I was not my usual self, and he shared with me a writer’s event happening in the city. It was a national sort of event that met every other year, hosted many famous writers, and offered a myriad of workshop sessions meant to train young writers. I didn’t catch the name of the association that ran it but I remembered this year’s theme: Bizarre Fiction.
I looked into this event when I returned home, and the sight of so many happy, and well-accomplished writers gave me a mixed feeling. I felt encouraged—the writing life seemed worth whatever struggle came with it—and downcast—who was I to think that I could be like them?
I searched for any hint of whether @WriteLiving would be a speaker at any event, but I didn’t see any indication of this. I wondered—if they are so popular why are they not going? My first instinct was to check their social account to see if they said anything.
When I logged into the community, I was distracted by a notification at the top of my screen. Completely forgetting what I came there for, I clicked on the red flashing symbol.
The notification page loaded in an instant, but my ability to understand what it said took much longer. I saw something like “@WriteLiving mentioned you…” and the screen blurred. I shook my face and rubbed my eyes, when I saw, in fact, that my username was listed in a short post. Mine! @WriteLiving had typed out my username – some name associated with me lived in their mind, if only for a moment.
I clicked through to see the post and it read: “Not able to make it to #BizzareFiction next week, but still want to support all my friends attending! You should definitely go @Kathykathy @Prufrock @ToWriteOrNotToWrite and the rest of you! Don’t miss out on my friend’s workshop—“How to Write in Light of Post-Modernism.”
My name! There in their writing. My username now polished forever having been written by such talented hands. In this reverie, I registered for the event and bought tickets to a workshop ran by their friend.
The stack of books next to my computer for my course work—books checked out from the university library on dream poetry, Chaucerian politics, and literature in the middle ages were now transparent to me. I saw only the single-cup coffee machine behind them and a half-empty journal resting on top. After making a pod of coffee, I grabbed a pen from my desk drawer and committed myself to writing a new story—one that would impress the workshop instructor.
I saw a future in which this story was handed to the instructor, as they asked, “May I keep this? I have a friend whom you may know that would like to read it.” I desired that moment more than anything else.
I wrote through the night, and the next few nights, working on this masterpiece of a story. One early evening, one of my friends reached out and said they were doing another reading because they found some free time. Their invitation seemed to me a distant call from miles away.
I couldn’t step away from my life-defining work, as I considered it. I worked for hours, listening to creative music on repeat–mostly Bon Iver and Ben Abraham. I wrote until I fell asleep on my desk and in my dreams I plotted out a thousand visions and revisions. Waking up in my own sweat, I made more coffee and kept going until the minute I had to shower and leave for work.
I taught classes, yes, but I had no plan, outline, or preparation for them. I talked for the entire length of the class—75 minutes—and as I left I hadn’t the slightest clue what I said. I pretended to jot notes in my own classes, but all the while I was really just working through character development, scene beginning and endings, and potential first lines.
Compared to this promised chance to impress @WriteLiving, all my academic work seemed to be child’s play, to steal from Joyce, ugly monotonous child’s play.
I finished my story the evening before the event—a Friday night. As I penned the final word, I fell into a deep sleep while scrolling through my achievement. In the dream, I was driving to the event with my manuscript on the passenger seat. I realized it was a Saturday morning and traffic backed up the highway. Cars in front of me and cars behind me motionless and without brake lights—they were all in park. I was stuck.
Hours went by, I tracked in my head the workshops I missed, but eventually the cars moved and I sped my way to the event. By the time I got inside, the event was nearly over. I recognized some of the writers—standing together in the hallway, each discussing their workshop. I slowly walked to them with my story in hand.
They saw me, and one woman said, “Are you an attendee at the event? Did you want me to read that?” I froze—then shook my head. I went back the way I came and stepped outside. I felt a barrage of rain come down on me.
Then I awoke, again covered in sweat, and dashed to check the time. It was early morning still, hours before the event. I showered, grabbed my manuscript, and dashed out the door. The drive was easy with no traffic. I made it to the event with plenty of time and I registered without an issue.
The main session was good, but I hardly listened. I couldn’t wait for the first breakout session with a published author who knew @WriteLiving very well. When the main speaker ended their lecture, I exited during the applause so I could be the first person in the classroom down the hall.
I sat in the front row, and the anticipated author finally come into the classroom as well. He set his bag down at the front of the room and offered a polite hello. I had my story in front of me, face up on the desk. He peered and he must have seen my anticipation. He looked at the clock and said, “We have a few minutes—do you mind if I looked at what you have there?”
I could barely respond. Instead, I nodded my head and offered an approving mumble. He picked up the story and his eyes scanned my first page, then the second, and the third, and so on. He glossed his eyes quickly over the pages and his face did not change in any sort of way. As others were arriving to his session, he scanned the final page and set it back down. He said, smiling, “Very good. Great work, friend. Keep it up.”
Had he liked the story? Had he hated it? It did not seem to change him. And he did not seem to want it. Was he being polite, condescending, genuine, or curt with his comments? I could not tell, but the room was spinning. I took notes during his short talk, but as I looked at them again they were just gibberish.
We moved on to a workshop time, and we read each other’s stories and he read some of ours. At each story, he said, “Well done. This is nice work.” Or, “You keep this up and you’ll be somewhere.” Or “Great work, friend.”
As he recited these lines to us all, the music I had listened to on repeat lingered in my head: And at once I knew I was not magnificent.
After the session, I left the whole event. I threw my story into the trunk of my car. I drove home along the winding highway, coming back to reality. I was a graduate student with a large paper due in just a few days and with forty-five students waiting for grades on their recent projects.
Behind me, the highway stretched into the horizon under which I knew that writing event was still going on without me. It didn’t need me. It didn’t want me. And, as a last attempt, I looked to read that mention of my name on social media. But, phone in hand and eyes looking down while I drove, I discovered that the post had been deleted.