“You’ve got a much better chance of getting into Harvard than getting your essay into this book.” –Boykin Curry, editor, Essays that Worked: 50 Essays from Successful Applications to the Nation’s Top Colleges
Sitting on a bus on the way home after a mid-January row on the Wannsee, it occurred to me that I made a wrong turn about 25 years ago. I thought about the MA in English I completed after college, how it should have been an MFA.* I was not close to understanding who I was or what my strengths were, and I did what I thought was the right thing at the time, though it was really a suppression of myself and the work I longed to do.
My college application essay was one of the first personal essays I ever wrote. Bucknell University’s question was innocuous and far-reaching, something to the effect of “Tell us about yourself.” I wrote about the last hour I spent with three children I was babysitting, before I started my first job in a fast-food restaurant in my neighborhood. The youngest child had spina bifida. The father, incidentally, was a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer who would go on to write Black Hawk Down. I wrote about how eager I was to move on to a more substantial work commitment than babysitting, but how in the moments when I said good-bye I realized that this had been real, meaningful work all along.
Unbeknownst to me, my guidance counselor had included my essay in a batch of my class’s college application essays and mailed them off to an editor in response to his query, as had counselors from high schools across the country. I will never forget the afternoon the phone rang in our apartment where my mother, sister and I had recently moved after an abrupt separation from my father. I was wearing my favorite purple turtleneck, faded from constant wear. I took the phone from my mother and listened to the words of the editor, hardly believing him when he said that my essay would appear in his book. I asked if he would send me a copy, but he said I could find it in any bookstore by fall. My mouth hung open in astonishment and a dark stain appeared where I drooled on my shirt.
I learned all the wrong lessons in that moment—that someone else will submit your work for you, that it will be recognized and published without any effort on your part. The one thing I had learned, long before his call, was how it felt to write a strong piece, to fall in love with your own writing, to read and rework a piece hundreds of times until every sentence rolls off your tongue, and how it felt to reach the end and be compelled to turn back to the beginning and read it again.
I had no idea that I had stumbled upon a real genre, that of creative nonfiction, in fact did not really understand until my 30s that it’s a viable form, that it’s the stuff of memoirs, the kind of stories I love to read. I did not imagine for a moment that I could ever be allowed into the fold of those who wrote them. For a couple of years I got stuck in the tired and damaging notion that memoir is “me”-moir, self-obsessive and vain. I knew that I preferred to write personal essays but I did not see how I could do anything useful in the world with that, so I avoided the form, avoided creative writing altogether for years, taking shadow writer jobs, editing other people’s work, writing the occasional news story, but always feeling I was getting further and further from myself and the work I was meant to do. And I had no idea how to get back.
Bucknell gave me a full scholarship for a master’s in English, and I loved the seminars on Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot, wrote my thesis on Emily Dickinson, but I never wrote a single personal essay in all those years. The only occasional writing I did for myself was a handful of poems, only one of which stays with me. I got stuck after the third line, a haiku of sorts:
The trees are up to their
knees in water; babies drown
in their mothers’ laps
And for months I tried to add to it but found I could not, and so, after 22 years, I suppose I can call it done.
I took one course in fiction writing at Bucknell, where I wrote several uninspired stories. Never did it occur to me to pursue creative nonfiction. To think I spent six years in an excellent school with a large English Department and never took a single memoir class. It strikes me now as a sin of omission, though I could not, in fact, tell you whether there had ever been such a class offered, as memoir was not in vogue in those days the way it is now.
I begin to understand why rowing has become so important to me in recent years. Perhaps you know me well enough by now to imagine my astonishment at finding someone who saw something in my rowing and offered a few words of encouragement, which allowed me to glimpse and later believe that perhaps I don’t have to weigh more or be more of anything other than what I already am. After a row I once asked my partner what I needed to work on; his one-word reply was “Nothing.” That was the last response I expected; rowers are always talking about needing to work on their catch or their finish or their roll-ups or the speed of their slide. To hear “nothing” was startling. And maybe it was a throw-away answer, but it wasn’t to me—it was utterly freeing.
Imagine if someone had offered the right word in my time at Bucknell—if I had told any of my professors about my publication, showed them my one essay, said I want to do more of this kind of writing. Perhaps they might have encouraged me to consider the MFA rather than the MA. The way my rowing partner responded at the end of a season a few years back when I said I was planning to rededicate myself to the casual Sport program and he groaned—startling me yet again with this indication that to his mind a different path fit me better. “Challenge yourself,” he said over coffee that winter. A slight nudging of this sort from one of my dozens of English professors might have helped me adjust my course to the one that was the better fit. But I guess I had to come to Berlin to figure that out.
At the time, all those years ago, it would have been a simple track switch, a few papers filed with the registrar; I would have entered a different doorway for seminars held down the same hall I was already in. Now, it will take a leap of faith, a flying leap from one moving train to another, hoping I can land on a train that I sense is out there but can’t yet see.
* A note for those not familiar with American master’s degrees: An M.A. in English is a Master of Arts in Literature in which you study great and obscure writers as well as literary theory and criticism; an M.F.A. is a Master of Fine Arts in which you study and practice the craft of being a poet, novelist or nonfiction writer. (Thank you, Anne, for pointing out that these acronyms are a bit alienating to those not familiar with them.)