Lately I've found my job requiring me to do frightening things — bouncing around in small planes, jumping off ropes courses, rafting through Class IV rapids, poking away rattlesnakes. In these cases, I was a teacher in charge of students — undergraduates, graduates, writing retreat folk, and so unlike other scary endeavors I get myself into for my own writing (interviewing meth addicts, say), I'm supposed to be the brave and confident one, the one who shows equanimity and grace and leads by example. I'm supposed to have my chin up and my eyes calm.
Well, ah, let's just admit that I can poker face as good as anyone (and we are all very good at it, methinks), and also, adrenaline-based activities aren't really my natural path. Or, as the Greeks say, "Everything in moderation and save thyself" (okay, I made that last one up). Or at least, those are my mantras when the world starts spinning so fast that it nearly flings itself out of orbit, or when vomit seems lodged in the same tube that is designed to carry oxygen to my lungs — which are the sensations my body chooses to express that it's physically scared and annoyed with me for putting it in that position.
So I always find myself in some sort of balancing act: advocating writing bravery while being physically scared. And from time to time, it's put into relief (a CAT scan of sorts, I suppose) the types of fears that writers encounter — and how, unbelievably, the fear of revealing that real stuff (not what you think is real, but five layers deeper) is scarier than putting your body in harm's way.
At a recent ropes course escapade, for example, as I watched the graduate students gasp and cling and leap onto various tall torture devices, I decided that my primary role, as teacher, should simply be as a coach. "Way to GO," I hollered. "Excellent work!"
I meant it, too. My cheers were genuine. I was proud to see these fellow humans scale, plunge, dive, balance, shake, cuss, scream, and giggle their way through exceedingly difficult physical maneuvers (can I just say that these ropes courses get pooh-poohed, but some of them are really very absurdly scary). I had this vague hope that I could be proud on the ground.
But then this happened: one student, who was visibly shaking after climbing a very tall pole and walking on a thin wire forward and backward and then being belayed down through the long, long expanse of air (this, while being pregnant!), said to me, "Well, writing the personal essay you assigned was worse."
"My assignment was worse than that?" I said, incredulously. Impossible.
"Yes," she said.
"Impossible," I said.
"Yes," she said again, fiddling with her harness. "I've been nervous for weeks. Sharing what I need to share? No way. At least with this ropes course thing, it's just over." I stared at her and realized she was actually really mad at me. No kidding here.
It's the altitude, I thought. It's adrenaline. Pregnancy hormones.
"You're sort of kidding, right?" I tried, one last time.
"No," she said, stomping off. "I'm really not."
÷ ÷ ÷
As someone who can blather on (on the page) about every personal thing that happens to me — from my love life, to the incredible lows and highs of parenting, to the various qualities of loneliness, to my death mantra — I sometimes forget that other people don't have the same desire. For better or worse, the one thing I probably value most is openness — and my main goal, as a writer, is to have an increasing refinement of honesty.
Of course, this affects my life. For some time, I've realized that the only people I end up hanging out with are (for whatever reason) sometimes judged as rude or difficult because they have few filters. They have more of an inclination to show the world what's real. More than one comment about the weather, and I'm outta there. I like to think I do my best to reciprocate — to share the honest and real truths about my life, even if it makes me look less than ideal, which is very nearly always the case.
One thing I've learned in my career of writing about deeply personal things is that even when you're confident that you're being as honest as possible, there's actually another layer (or five layers) to go deeper. And if you're not shaking when you admit to the deepest-dwelling-spots inside you (or characters), well, then you are far sturdier than I. It can get pretty dark and ugly down there. But I've also learned that when you do something for a decade, you simply forget that other people aren't as comfortable with it. (Which is why I kept scowling at the ropes-course woman, who seemed to think — and I am possibly projecting, here — that it was easy to balance on a rope swinging wildly a zillion feet up in the air, and that she would find it impossible to believe that a perfectly normal, good person such as myself might have some reservations.)
As I argue in my classes, I don't do this writing (or ask students to do this writing) for the navel-gazing. On the contrary, it is an act of selflessness to share your story so that others feel less lonely or weird or scared on this spinning planet. I write personal essays because reading other people's personal essays have made me feel like I have friends out there — that I am connected, rather than dislodged, from humanity. To put it more bluntly, I would argue that other people's honest writing has saved me.
I also write because stories help me perceive and possess my life — stories help me understand my life, and then live it better. And also, of course, because I believe that the creation of art — or, heck, the attempt at the creation of art — enlarges the world and expands the consciousness. We write to discover the unknown capacities of the mind, the mysterious life of the heart.
Perhaps, in fact, writing is like jumping from a telephone pole. It might leave you stunned and breathless but also a bit brighter and more alive.
I believe this deeply, which is why I write, why I'm comfortable with it, and why trying to reveal myself doesn't scare me.
Which meant I had to show my student that being brave was worth it, which meant I had to climb that pole.
÷ ÷ ÷
As I stood on the little platform so very high up in the air, the ropes-course woman (who was obviously a monkey in her previous life) cleared her throat, twice. "You can step off the side," she said in that I'm-trying-to-be-patient voice. "Or you can jump."
"Okay," I said, clutching the telephone pole, leaning my head against it. I kept wanting to engage her in conversation — maybe have a cup of tea way up there in the freezing-cold wind. We could talk about how stepping into air so far above ground just doesn't feel right to the brain. We could talk about cognitive abilities, brain chemicals, survival mechanisms; we could talk about the meaning of life and the best way to live it.
"Just leap," I am always telling my students. "No throat clearing. No explaining yourself. Just tell a dang story, and tell it well, and tell it true. Don't tell me the story you think I want to hear. Tell the story you want to tell. Just jump." I realized I could have a long talk with this woman about that topic, too — how writing is an act of bravery, and usually requires some big leap.
"Um—" I started.
"You can step off the side of the platform," she said again. "Or you can jump."
÷ ÷ ÷
When you are standing way up on a platform in Northern Colorado, you can see a long ways. I could see the state of Wyoming in one direction; I could see the Rocky Mountains in another direction; I could even see the general location of my parents' ranch — the place that has influenced so much of my work — from up there. But most of all, I could see that flat, hard ground way below me. I could see the dozen graduate students down there too, their small faces staring up, making hand motions that meant I was supposed to leap. I'm fairly certain they were wondering what was wrong with their teacher, the one who had been advocating bravery of the heart for weeks and weeks now.
When people are scared about writing, I offer the quote I stole from E. L. Doctorow (or perhaps some other famous author, because I've seen it attributed to about everyone): "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." As in, just jump in — and trust that you will get there. The trick is to just start driving. Just go.
"You can step off the side of the platform," said the woman, with perhaps a small sigh. "Or you can jump."
There are different ways to be brave, I argued with her in my mind. I'm not a coward.
÷ ÷ ÷
As I continued to stand on the platform, I realized that the comment my student made was really bothering me. Before I died, I wanted to apologize to her — and anyone who felt like her. I didn't want to cause this amount of anxiety to anyone. "Forget the essays!" I wanted to shout. "Forget telling some of the most real, true, raw, and difficult things about yourselves!"
But then I realized I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it because, somewhere deep inside, I hoped that in the end maybe even the most reluctant students might be grateful for the chance to write something beautiful, true, personal — and write it well.
And so I jumped. I am quite certain that my heart did not beat for a moment there; the silence was astonishing. Then ground swooped closer, the ropes caught me as they were designed to do, I careened forward as if on a giant swing, and I laughed. Oh this is fun, I thought as I went flying, as I heard the students cheer, as I heard myself scream in delight.
Right afterward, we went to the classroom, still shivering from both nerves and cold. I got up to talk a little about the beauty of the personal essay. As usual, I saw some biting of lips, some skeptically raised eyebrows. One person had her head on her desk, encased in her folded arms, as if she were weeping. No kidding, I thought to myself. I hear what you're saying now. And then, perhaps with a bit more sympathy, I more or less said: Jump.