Street Smart Chicago

Fish Out of Water: Learning to Swim Among the Writers

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By Cathy Beres

It was with some trepidation that I enrolled in the two-year certificate writing program at the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Studies. I was fifty-seven, widowed two years; with zero writing experience. I kept a blog during my husband’s twenty-two month battle with inoperable stage IV brain cancer and thought this was enough to support an application to a writing program. What possessed me? Ever the pleaser, the planner, the sometime over-achiever and often-time dreamer, a program held such appeal; weekly classes filled with heady discussions of literary works from the masters, in-class exercises, homework, workshops, critiques and annotations (“Excuse me, what’s an annotation?” I asked during the first evening’s class. I thought the question perfectly acceptable coming from someone who graduated with a BA in Advertising some thirty-three years prior.) I was enthralled with the idea of the final project, the graduation requirement and culmination of the program. An opportunity to work with an esteemed faculty member on a one-hundred-page project of our choosing. I signed on to write the story of my husband’s illness and death. I wanted to tie up the bits and pieces of the blog in a neat package with a bow. Maybe I could throw the grieving in with this package too. And yes, I also wanted something to do to fill the empty evenings that stretched before me with no end in sight since my husband’s death.

I struggled over the application and the writing sample. I answered the questions truthfully: no prior writing classes except a poetry class I had taken the prior summer for fun, I wondered if that would count. Writing experience? Well, there was the blog…. would my business-proposal-writing apply? Publications…seriously? Honors? I felt intimidated by the questions, but not enough to stop. My sample was some sort of something drawn from the blog. I did write a heartfelt statement about my goals and desires, my sincere interest, my empty calendar waiting to be filled with words. When the official letter of acceptance arrived two months later, I was every bit as excited as when I had been accepted into college. I couldn’t wait to be a student again. I had the time and the motivation. I wasn’t sure I had the talent. And whatever I had once learned about punctuation, verb tenses and the like was long gone.

I prepared for my first class carefully, that is to say, I wondered how I should dress. I didn’t want to appear too business-like, coming from work as I was. I settled on nice jeans with a sweater tied over my shoulders. I carried a notebook and the paperback textbook in a canvas newsboy-style bag I found buried in my son’s closet, something he had tossed off before going to college for a nicer bag to carry his laptop in. I thought the bag gave me the jaunty air of a student, albeit an older, decidedly not jaunty, student.

There’s something about going back to school in the fall. Even in a building that primarily houses adult students, the smell of school lingers in the air… the books, notebooks, pencils, pens and papers. It’s a bit musty, the smell of worn pages, familiar and friendly, comfortable. I inhale deeply as I enter the lobby. I’m an excited kid again, anxious to see who’s in my class, who’s the teacher, where’s the bathroom? Students are chatting, “How was your summer?” “Are you taking econ?” “What room are we in?” These are the evening MBA students, younger professionals, quick and breezy. I look at the list of classes posted to find my classroom. There it is: Writer’s Studio, Creative Non Fiction, Room 118. This is real. I’m going down the steps to the classroom, too late now. Or is it? There must be a way to drop out, but I’ll wait to see how it goes. I’m not a dropper outer.

The class is comprised of six women of varying ages from perhaps thirtyish to mid sixties. There’s an unemployed advertising copy writer who writes a food blog, a business writer, a retired librarian (published!), a woman with a masters in rhetoric, who is doing this for fun, another woman with several writing classes and workshops under her belt, and me. I’m feeling over my head already. We talk of favorite authors, I realize I am not reading enough; blogs don’t count. We talk of genres, I don’t think chick lit counts, though Nora Ephron’s book about her neck might, it’s a memoir after all. We talk of our experience, my answer is the shortest. We talk of why we’re there. At last, I have something worthwhile to contribute. Hard to trump the “I want to write about my husband’s brain tumor” card.

We are asked to fill a page about “why we write.” Since I really don’t, yet (isn’t that why I’m here, to learn to write?), this is hard. Others fill the page with lovely sentiments that garner warm smiles from the instructor and encouraging nods around the room… “yes, yes, I feel the same, I get you, I do.” I don’t want to share. I decide maybe I can act mysterious, say little, write little, smile wryly and nod knowingly.

It gets me through the first class. I take it all in, quickly surmising I am out of my league. These people are writers, words flow effortlessly from their brains, to their pens, to the paper, to their voices, to the rest of us. They can create, on the spot. My brain is a sieve, drained of any ideas, of anything meaningful at all. I slowly pack up my newsboy bag and trudge up the steps, anxious to get out of the building, away from the other students. I berate myself on the walk home. “What were you thinking? You should just take a beginning writing class. You’ll never make it. You can’t even come up with titles!” This drone goes on and on in my head, all the way home, all night long, all week until the next class.

I find my way to class again a week later. This time the scent of school is stale. I’m not so excited, I know who the other kids are, I know where the bathroom is. And I know what I don’t know. Today we start with a visual prompt. I’ve never done this before, I’m apprehensive. We are all to draw a postcard from a stack our instructor sets out on a desk and write what comes to mind. Maybe I’ll get a postcard of a brain tumor, ha! No such luck, my postcard is what appears to be a black-and-white photo from the fifties of a man and a woman in wool coats and hats, standing on a bridge, overlooking a wide and rushing river, with a very large fish swimming upstream.

I stare at the postcard while everyone else scribbles happily around me, already on to page two or three. I’m casting about for an idea, a thought, a word, something, anything related to this picture, this fish, these people on the bridge.

I start to feel clammy and short of breath. The blank page is a blur, floating before me, out of my reach. I’m sinking into a spinning eddy that pulls me under, deeper, further away from the paper, my pen. Yes, I am in over my head, I am drowning. It’s too deep, too fast, schools of fish stream past me. I hit bottom, it’s fish or cut bait. I’m reaching, yes, I am. And then, I see it. I see it sparkling in the sun, in the smooth, calm waters above. At last, I see the hook. It has come to save me. It carries me downstream, bobbing along happily. I’m floating back to the page, I can breathe again. As if by magic, three words appear:

Sink Or Swim. I have a title. I dive back in.

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