“Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Susan Jeffers forged an entire career from those seven simple words. For some people, the catchphrase might serve as inspiration to tackle a major athletic feat, such as running a marathon or completing an ironman-distance triathlon. For others, it may ignite the desire to set new workplace goals or take a personal relationship to the next level. For me, though, the captivating mantra perfectly reflected my state of mind as I nervously, but determinedly, vowed to spend a semester in uncharted territory: immersed in nonfiction literature and surrounded by MFA creative writers.
Evening One of Studies in Contemporary Fiction and Nonfiction saw thirteen students seated around an oblong classroom table, twelve of them chatting easily with one another. Then there was me. Sitting quietly, I felt extraordinarily conspicuous as I realized I was (GASP) the only LCT track student in the room. As we waited for the professor to show up, I killed time by opening my laptop, searching for the Internet connection, and checking Facebook yet again. Eventually however, out of fidgety filler activities, I began to ponder the peculiarity of simultaneously feeling both completely at home and like a total stranger inside CNH 401, the classroom that had hosted so many of my previous graduate courses. Thinking ahead as I often do and planning for a “what if” scenario (specifically, what if I decide this course really isn’t for me?), I speculated about whether I could still register for a Lit theory class. At last, though, I was saved from my negative thoughts’ downward spiral when Dr. Roney came into the room. And that was the beginning of a semester filled with curious and wonderful happenings, as well as a tremendous amount of self-discovery.
Here are some of the things I learned as I progressed through a semester of LIT 6076:
First, creative writers choose to ignore the traditional boundaries of professor-student labels. No “Professor” or “Doctor” here. Instead, by calling each other using given names, student and professor acknowledge each other on a level playing field; every person in the room is, simply, a creative writer. As a theoretical equal to the talented writers in the room, I was able to both give and receive encouragement and honest criticism. To wit, the professor that gave us a pastiche assignment each week also participated in each one. When it came time for us to read our work aloud, she also bared her soul and unapologetically gave us her own response to the week’s task.
Second, I learned that the beauty of a narrative lies in the emotional honesty that motivated the words on the page. I also witnessed, first hand, the pain that can accompany the struggle to provide integrity through frankness. Meandering through a dozen different successful nonfiction writers and sorting through the biographical truths that might or might not have contributed to their work, at the very least, elicited admiration and the desire to be equally as brave in penning my own stories.
Finally, after completing LIT 6076, I learned to question the labels assigned to nonfiction texts, especially that of the memoir, because “truth” today is subjective. It is one person’s reality and even then, it is the reality he or she wants to put forward, not necessarily a recounting of facts. The study of trends in contemporary creative nonfiction and fiction throughout the semester revealed a surprising merger of genres and I will never again naively think in terms of tidy, well-defined categories.
I have always been a voracious reader and, deep down, wannabe author. Like many people I know, a story resides in my mind that I believe is waiting to be recorded on paper. The weekly pastiche assignments in my lone creative writing class forced me to examine the writing styles that made individual authors successful. I benefited immensely from those exercises and, equally as important, I took a big step toward authorial integrity by daring to write with a new brand of self-conscious honesty.
If you are currently a creative writing student, take pride in being part of a community of voices that enhance our world. If you are a student who, like me, wants to spread your wings and explore your inner voice, if you want to take a course that examines the stylistic uniqueness that has defined successful authors, I encourage you to take a leap of faith and join the incredible group of students and professors who love to create the written word. You’ll be welcomed with open arms and enthusiastic support. I know. I survived, and relished, a semester as the only LCT student in the room.
Melinda Stewart is a full-time financial planner by day and a part-time LCT track English M.A. student by night. Wanting to pursue her love of literature and the written word, Melinda has returned to the joy and rigor of postgraduate education.
She tends to fall in love with every genre she studies, but seems to return over and over again to medieval period literature, Marxist theory, young adult dystopian fiction, Vietnam War cultural response, and film studies.