I studied biology in college, but every year I wasted a while wondering whether or not I secretly wanted to be a writer. I couldn’t even decide if the very THOUGHT was appealing or appalling. I wanted to record and remember things—thoughts, sights, conversations, perfect places, feelings, ideas—and words were such lovely, elegant entities. But I was in awe of those granted the gift of storytelling. I wasn’t one of them. What did I have to contribute to the world? Nothing but nonsense. And even if I magically managed to grab hold of the elusive gift of weaving words into perfect scenes, writing could so easily go wrong. It might be awful, embarrassing, offensive to others, humiliating. Plus, it seemed impossible to make a living without selling your soul. Pros and cons piled up and the cons easily won out every time. But deep down I still debated. I longed to sculpt plain piles of words into something breathtaking. But I was too practical, too boring. Biology was too time consuming. And I was too fearful of failing.
During my last semester in college I finally found the time and nerve to take a course called Fiction and Poetry Workshop. We were starting the stretch we students affectionately dubbed “the May-mester”—a tiny, month-long spring semester dedicated entirely to the extensive study of a single subject. So thirty days before receiving my diploma, I walked into Professor B-’s class and took a seat at the empty table.
I had no idea what I was getting into. The professor wandered absentmindedly into class five minutes late carrying a small book and a haphazard heap of looseleaf pages. I had the tiny textbook in front of me, all set to study, but instead of cracking books, we cracked open windows, chanted, danced, stretched and sang. A student sat on the sill of an open window and swung his bare feet back and forth as we talked. I was stunned. The biology faculty would never stand for this! The biggest entertainment in our department was Dr. B’s with his horrible science puns and odd pronunciation of the word milk: mel-lick. In those classes we sat. We listened. We took lots of notes. We studied. We asked questions. We memorized, drew diagrams, and crammed in some more notes. Then we went home, laden with homework and readings and the knowledge of quizzes in the near future. Then the real work began! Did the biology department even KNOW classes like this existed? Did they actually acknowledge these student gatherings as “classes”? I had my doubts. All at once I was Dorothy—“Toto, I don’t think we’re in academia anymore…”
The professor’s voice drew me out of dreamland, “Be free, be comfortable. Sit on desktops. Walk around. Don’t constrain your mind. Just let you words run wild… There are no wrong answers. The purpose of the class is simply to become better acquainted with yourself and your inner voice…We will be doing all kinds of things this semester to help feed our creative minds…” She spoke in a low, dramatic voice and threw back her long white hair as she gestured theatrically, huge round horn-rimmed glasses in hand.
Before long we moved on to an in-class poetry exercise. Somehow or another we ended up with six random words and the vague instructions: “Turn them into a poem!” Only six words to work with? Ummm…okay…yeah… sure thing…piece o’ cake. I may be a bio major, but I’m not entirely ignorant of the masterful works of ee cummings. A little rearrange, a tweek or two and voila! Not great, but good enough. We only had five minutes, after all. “Time’s up. Now, who wants to read what they wrote?” Eh, what the heck, I’m free, crazy and daring! My mind is unconstrained! My words are learning to run wild! Besides, this is the May-mester so I’ll be spending a lot of time with these English majors over the next month; it’ll be a good icebreaker…There are, after all, no wrong answers. Right? Several hands went up and mine was among them.
The first student stood and poured her broken soul into an emotional and astonishing work of literary genius. The class burst into applause, a few sensitive listeners dabbed at tears, and everyone overflowed with compliments. Surely not! I gasped in awe. A poem born out of five minutes of free writing? Is that possible? But alas, it was indeed possible, and quite achievable, for each progressive student poured forth a masterpiece and was met by applause, excited encouragement, and the professor’s occasional enthusiastic comment that the poem should be sent into the school’s yearly literary publication “just like it is. You don’t have to touch that one bit.” I glanced at my own poem and slid a few inches deeper in my seat.
“Well, well…only two minutes ’til class is done. I think we have JUST enough time for one…more…student to read his or her poem. Let me see…” the professor mused. Inwardly I chanted, Don’t pick me, don’t pick me, don’t—“I saw Angi, our biology major, had her hand up earlier”—ugh…pick me, why don’t ya? Marvelous. A mind like a steel trap. Well, in that case she won’t be forgetting this poem for quite some time. Bravely I took the floor. Voice shaking, I choked out my tiny 10 word poem—subject: eating lunch outside. Add seven related words of your choice and you’ve got the general picture.
I looked up.
For the first time all day, every single student managed to be intently studying notes. You could have heard a gnat take its final breath. A down feather drop. A single snowflake melt. The clock awkwardly, eagerly counted down the final seconds of class.
The professor’s words broke the stillness. She leaned in, pulled her glasses down a smidgen and peered worriedly over the frames. “You’ll keep working on that, won’t you? Don’t give up on poems just yet,” she advised sincerely, concern evident in her voice.
I should have been embarrassed, but the hilarity of the situation bubbled up and it was all I could do to keep a straight face. “Don’t worry, I won’t. I’ll keep working at it,” I promised.
She heaved a mighty sigh of relief. “Oh, good! Please do.”
The class stood at once, shuffling books, papers, and chairs as they quickly filed out of the room.
Maybe I should have called it quits right there and switched to another class, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Yes, I’d fallen flat on my face on the very first day, but nothing was too severely injured. Besides, I wanted to try again!
I wasn’t perfect. Heck, I wasn’t even GOOD, but I was one little thing. I was totally hooked…