The weather is perfect today in NC. I’m visiting Duke with my friend. She’s busy as a part of the group of applicants recently accepted into her specific program. Meanwhile, I get to roam the campus, using their wireless and enjoying the beautiful scenery and weather. I never set foot in an ivy league school. I walked Harvard Square in Boston, but never the actual campus. Earlier, a guy asked me for directions, and I couldn’t believe he mistook me as someone who fits in here. My first creative writing teacher, in high school, used to tell me I had an “in-superiority complex.” I have much more confidence than I used to, and I’m better at faking it for the times when I don’t–yet, I still walk around an ivy league school, certain I must stick out as an impostor.
My friend and I went to the same university for our undergrad. It’s a good school with exceptional faculty, but it is not one of the most selective schools in the state. My friend mentioned she felt intimidated because everyone she met this morning comes from ivy league schools and hasn’t heard of our university. It reminded me of a conversation I had four or five years ago with a wonderful literature professor. I walked in his office as a starry-eyed sophomore, asking for permission to do my paper on an Anne Sexton poem that was not included in our textbook. I was newly recovered from my first major depression, so Sexton’s poem, “Sylvia’s Death,” about Plath’s suicide intrigued me. My prof seemed interested in my selection, asking for details about my fascination. This, somehow, lead to me disclosing my desire be a published writer someday.
He told me my possibilities were endless, and I had the resources available to be one of the best–in whatever field I desired–but that I shouldn’t listen to anyone telling me to slow down. He explained the trap of mediocrity, and how he believes too many students from our university are naive about how their abilities compare with others–either buying into the idea that they couldn’t even compete with applicants from ivy league schools, or they think they are more exceptional than they really are, because they don’t realize how many other talented and driven people exist.
He said, “If you want to be a writer. Write. Now. All the time. Talk to as many people as you can. People will tell you that you have plenty of time to publish. You don’t. Start researching places to publish. What genre do you work in? Fiction or poetry?”
I nervously explained my love for creative non-fiction, asking if it was possible to study that. He wrote down the name of our creative nonfiction specialist, saying “I don’t even know if she still works here. Look her up. If she’s here, show up at her office, take a class with her. Ask her to be your advisor.”
This terrified me, but I did as he said, contacting this talented woman who became an exceptional mentor, despite my brief interaction with her. She introduced me to the idea that I could even dream of getting an MFA, got me connected at the writing center I would spend three years working at, and helped me achieve my first publication in a lit. journal. Best of all, she introduced me to Wasted, as proof I should keep with nonfiction–despite being told I was too young to write in a genre that requires so much reflection and insight. I had no idea that book would lead to me reading many other great books by the author, and eventually landing the opportunity to study under her.
My networking has multiplied since that conversation in my prof’s office, years ago. I’ve always been grateful for his advice and networking. This return of old gratitude, the kind that takes on a new level of depth with passed time, caused me to reflect on the power of teachers in my life. My identity has been deeply shaped by a good number of teachers–whether professional teachers or just life teachers.
Another example of a teacher telling me something that would prove to be helpful many years later involves my fourth & fifth grade teacher. He told us about his daughter’s suicide attempt. This horrified me, because I knew his daughter was very successful. I didn’t understand mental-illness yet, but I thought about that story a lot. When I landed in a hospital for depression and suicidal thoughts, over 10 years later, I had a whole new level of appreciation for my teacher’s courage in sharing something so emotional from his personal life. Someday I should write that teacher a thank you. There’s always so many letters I want to write and never enough time.
I’m so tired that I’m no longer thinking coherently to finish this blog. However, I’d like to mention that I returned for one night to where I went to college (in order to hear a speaker), and was overwhelmed with joy about the people who came out to see me. I’d originally intended to stay through the weekend, so I’d reconnected with former profs, friends, coworkers, agreeing to coffee dates with many. The way my traveling schedule worked out, I only had a couple free hours in town, so I invited everyone to one location. I knew it was late on a Wednesday night, last minute, and inflexible, so I did not expect people to make it out. Several folks came, and I really enjoyed catching up with such supportive people. My anxiety was through the roof after having been in a very crowded arena for the speech, so it was helpful to have such kind people around to catch up with. Thanks to those of you who made it.