“I don’t remember you,” the wizened old professor said to her.
Why would he? She wasn’t surprised. She had dropped out of the fiction writing program after one and a half less than illustrious semesters, her inner muse having succumbed to a fatal case of writer’s block. But that was a decade ago. In the ten years that had passed between then and now, the fiction department sent her invitations to their annual festival of creative writing. Every year she declined.
It was hard enough still living in the same city as the school she dropped out of. She never knew when she’d see a news item about it, or discover that some once-vacant building in its vicinity had been taken over by the school and was now full of students working on something edgy and avant garde. Now that it no longer mattered, she had a firm grasp of the bus and train schedules that could get her to campus on time. Now that it no longer mattered, she had a thick enough skin to take constructive criticism. Now that it no longer mattered, she had enough life experiences to write the novel that would have been her thesis project.
It was quite possible that ten years ago today she was sitting in the very same classroom she sat in now, anticipating the beginning of the 2 hour writing workshop the old professor would be teaching. More students filed in. Their faces were unfamiliar to her, and too old to have been the faces of any of her former classmates. She had enrolled, under duress and pain of parental cajolement, right after completing her Bachelor’s in a torturously rigorous program. All she had wanted was a year off to rest her brain from the strain it had endured. But she ignored her own instincts, followed orders like a dutiful daughter, and enrolled here at 22. Most of her classmates were about her age, though most of them were undergraduates. Which posed a problem, since they were her peers and yet not her peers at the same time. What separated them was that she had a degree they were still working on. She often forgot that she was being held to a higher standard than they were. There were older graduate students in the program, of course, but she hardly saw them because most of them took the evening classes while she preferred attending during the day. So perhaps that was who she was surrounded by today, the older students she had not met before.
Today there would be no grades or standards to worry about. The professor had the group arrange their chairs in a circle. She remembered sitting in circles like these. Unlike the other writing courses she took, the ones here required that she and her classmates exchange stories and read them aloud. So someone else was always reading her writing back to her. Hearing it come from someone else’s mouth, cringing at the typos Microsoft Word somehow let slip through spell check, she wished she was not sitting in a circle so she could bury her head in her desk. Something about the setup made her feel small somehow. But she was going to confront her past today.
“Take a sound.” The professor said. “Listen for it. It could be a sound here in the room, or a sound outside the room.”
Ah, yes, this dumb writing exercise. She remembered now. This was the type of thing they did in Fiction I to spark some sort of inspiration. But the inspiration never came for her then, not this way. Nor was it coming now. None of the sounds inspired her to see an unrelated image in her mind’s eye, create a gesture for that image, then a story to go with the gesture. This was not working for her.
Next they took turns reading aloud from Proust. At least it wasn’t “Bartelby the Scrivener” again, or some dreadful Kafka story. If she had to read about Gregor Samsa one more time, she’d send the Orkin man after him. After they’d read for a while, the professor asked them to share what images they remembered from the story. Then there was another story to read aloud, a surreal piece by a professor whose name sounded vaguely familiar. Could she have been one of the instructors teaching a class she dropped out of halfway through the semester? Perhaps.
At last, with only 30 minutes remaining, it was time for the writers to write. She hadn’t thought of herself as a writer for a very long time. But that’s who they were in this room now, writers, all of them.
“Take a place,” the professor said, “a space, a room. Picture this place, this room. What’s in this room?”
Her mind again went blank for a while, until an image came to her, something that held the clue to one of her deepest secrets. Oh, that secret just begged to be made into a novel or screenplay, if she only had the nerve to disclose so much about herself. Of course, she could always use a pen name. Not that it mattered now. These people didn’t know her. She never saw them before and probably wouldn’t see them again. She told them what the item was when she was called upon. There were a few blank stares, but a few more writers leaning forward with interest. And instantly she recalled how she’d felt ten years before, when her roman à clef was being read aloud in class, typos and all. Her field of vision throbbed in time with her pounding heart, and she knew she wasn’t ready to share the story yet. Not with them, not this way. Her fear of exposing so much personal detail about herself was another contributing factor to the death of her muse. How relieved she felt when, at last, she no longer had to sit in classrooms encircled by strangers who knew her fictionalized secrets. Now was not the time for this, she decided. Now was the time for pure fiction. Now was the time to write a scene for the story she abandoned.
He was determined to go through life as though his frailties did not exist. No one had asked, so he could write his own story. He could be the hero instead of the victim. He could be the doctor now and not the patient.
When she read it, the professor nodded kindly and said it was a good start. She could sit a little straighter in her chair now, and hear the words of the other writers better. She could tell now what was truly a first draft and what was most likely prepared ahead of time. She would not be fooled this time as she had been before. She did not compare herself to anyone this time. She had her story, they had theirs.
Again the professor asked them to recall the images they remembered most. No one remembered anything she’d written. When that had happened before, back in the fiction program, she had been mortified. If no one remembered what she had written, did it mean she was an unmemorable writer? If it had been based on her real life, as was the premise of the Story and Journal class, did it mean that she lived an unmemorable life? If no one remarked on her writing, did it mean that she herself was unremarkable? These were the fatal blows her muse was dealt. Or perhaps they were near-fatal wounds. Her muse was not dead. Simply comatose. A crime had been committed here, a crime against herself. She was the perpetrator, her inner critic the accessory to it, her own words her weapons. She was the one who had subsequently forbidden herself to write, told herself nothing she had to say was interesting enough or good enough, seen her life as a forgettable bit part in the theater of the mundane.
This time, as before, she did not leave the class having made any new friends. But this time, unlike before, she realized that she wasn’t a bad writer at a good MFA program, but a good writer at a good MFA program that just hadn’t been right for her. So many times she had blamed herself for not having more exciting experiences to write about. She had actually envied the intrepid classmate who ventured to New York in October 2001 to see Ground Zero with his own eyes. Once she dropped out, she took a series of retail jobs and got all kinds of stories from neurotic shopping women who seemed to frequent high end department stores in lieu of psychotherapy. Besides the vicarious dramas, she’d experienced many of her own in the ten years that she’d left. But now she saw that her lack of life experience had never been the problem. Instead it was her lack of faith. The comatose writer inside of her was awakening, and she could feel its presence in its insistent narration of the story of her life as it happened to her, here, now, in this room.