At this time last year, I had just completed my final exams. I was simultaneously basking in that glorious post-exam feeling and drowning in the anguish that comes with imminent compulsory upcountry visits. I was looking back on the semester that was and I felt something that students do not often feel when they close school for the longest holiday of the year: a strange sadness. I would miss being in class.
More truthfully, I would miss being in one particular class with one particular lecturer. Have you ever had a class that you loved so much that you were upset when it was over? That 14 weeks of school was just not enough time? It’s not a feeling I come by often. Even when I enjoy a class, and I have a lecturer who knows how to teach, and I even make a few ‘friends’, I’m still pretty glad when it’s over. School has that effect on you. Wanting it to be over becomes an automatic process at some point. So my sadness when JRN 4025 was done surprised me just as much as it would the next normal person. Even worse was that I recently found myself yearning for that period of my life, despite that I am now done with school and yearning for it would mean yearning to be back in school. I know, I sound like a crazy person. But after giving it some thought, I now figure that it isn’t just the class that I miss; it was who I was when I was taking the class.
There were many things I loved about being in JRN 4025. For starters, it was a creative writing class. I chose to take it precisely because it was a creative writing class. You don’t get a lot of those lying around being affordable and stuff, so I leaped at the opportunity. And because this leopard, like all others, does not change its spots, another thing I loved about the class was that it was small. There were only seven of us after three dropped out over the course of the semester, eight including the lecturer. What joy. In my expert opinion, that is the perfect size for a classroom. Call it shyness or social awkwardness or whatever you like, but I’m convinced that I would have done so much better in each of my classes had they all been that size. Even that computer class in which I got a strong C despite having someone else help me with every single assignment we were given. A smaller class would have turned me into Steve Jobs.
We sat in a semi-circle during class. The first people to arrive would arrange the desks and chairs so and class would always begin promptly at 9 am. Which worked for me because it felt like sufficient payoff for my having woken up at six to make it by 9. The semi-circle also worked because it took out a lot of the tension I generally associate with the regular classroom set up. Which made it possible for me to be that annoying student who cannot stop participating in class.
I know, I was shocked too. I have never been the student that willingly puts her hand up to answer a question in class. Hell, on several occasions I have declined to answer a question even when the lecturer demanded an answer from me specifically. I hate that about classrooms. Participation. Graded participation, especially. Like, can we just come, listen, take notes and go? Why must you waste both our energies on trying to make me answer a question that I am not willing to answer, as is clearly demonstrated by my unraised hand? Why must we do this? It’s a waste of everybody’s time: mine, yours, and that of those six eager ones at the front who have comments to make and questions to ask about every bullet point on the PowerPoint. I hate compulsory class participation so much that every research paper I had to write was on that topic, in the hopes of proving to my lecturers that it was not only unnecessary but also mean to give 5% of my grade to participation, as though the 20% for group work was not a clear enough sign that this world is not my home.
And yet in this one class, there I was, unable to shut up. I had so much to say that sometimes good Ms. Wamunyu had to cut me off to let the others get a word in. But I couldn’t help it, the content was incredible. Our lecturer was there mainly to facilitate our discussions and give guidance. Everybody could think for themselves. Everybody could express their thoughts on a topic freely without the pressure of feeling like their opinion had to sound a certain way. There wasn’t a pressure to sound intelligent or even to know exactly what you were saying. You were allowed to fumble, you were allowed to be unsure. The course text was this fantastic book on writing creative non-fiction which I loved so much that I’m still looking to buy my own copy. Even our assignments were fun, mostly because they involved writing pieces on different topics and you could make of the assignment what you would. We read essays and short stories, we recommended books to one another, we had a published writer sit in and talk with us for a couple of lessons, we watched TED talks, we read our lecturer’s own writing, we read one another’s writing, we laughed. There were few rules in our class: Come on time, submit work on time and don’t describe anybody’s work using the word ‘nice’ because that means nothing.
I felt…alive in that class. Happy. I liked who I was in that class. For once in my life, unafraid.
I’ve been reading and re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing for a while now. It’s a book that I couldn’t swallow whole but instead had to take in small bites, and then when I was done, go back and do it again. In some sections he is so harsh (direct?) that he just about convinces you that you aren’t cut out to be a writer. In other sections so inspiring that you stop reading immediately because you have to go write something. It may be the only Stephen King book I will ever read seeing as his fiction is way too intense for someone as fainthearted as myself, so it’s a good thing that I enjoyed it. In it, he says that there isn’t that much to be gained from writing workshops and masterclasses and such. The only way to write better is to write till you’re better. If you get an opportunity to be part of a group of writers who read each other’s work and critique it then by all means take it, if only because it will probably be a good time. Just don’t go there thinking you will come out knowing everything you ever needed to know about writing.
Of course when I was reading this section of the book my mind turned to that creative writing class. What an experience it was for me to be in such a situation, where everybody wrote and everybody read everybody’s work, and everybody got some feedback on their own work. How much I took away from it, despite Stephen King’s word of caution. I figure that my classmates took away different lessons from that experience. Some learnt the kind of writing style they were most comfortable with. Some learnt that their writing was so much better than they had thought. Some learnt that writing a short story is difficult. I learnt to let other people hear me, listen to me. I learnt to like the sound of my own voice. I learnt to let go of fear, many different kinds of fear. I learnt to let other people read what I write. I learnt how my words sound to another set of ears. I learnt to let others push me forward. After the class, I knew to rewrite with the door open, as Stephen King suggests. And, I did have a good time.
Lately I have been struggling to write. Really, really struggling. Somebody even checked in to pray for me, bless you Janet. I have questioned, I have doubted, I have argued with myself, I have given up. I have opened my laptop to type something, anything, and absolutely nothing came. I have stayed in bed for whole days, wondering where the words went. I have begged them to come back. Many people will tell you that that often does not work. It did not for me. I was tired of not being able to do the one thing I could normally do without feeling utterly lost. But a couple of days ago, in my ponderings and lamentings, as I reflected on what I read in On Writing, I remembered exactly how I felt when I was in that creative writing class, how happy and how nervous I was to have people see what I wrote, how at ease I was in that space, how unafraid…and here I am.
This is how I know that the experience I had in that class was one that changed my life. This is how I know that maybe what everyone needs to get through the most lifeless rut is one great class, one great lesson. Whatever that may be. Even the most talented people, the hardest workers, run into a wall at some point that they feel they cannot scale. It happens. What you need is something (or someone) that will yank you back up when you decide to let yourself go. Something that will not let go.
I did not learn everything I needed to know about writing after that class. My writing didn’t become ten times better afterwards and I wasn’t suddenly forever rid of crippling self-doubt. But I will never forget how I felt when I was there, who I was. That confidence to take up space just as I was. I will never forget that feeling because it was the first time I felt excited about something as mundane as going to school. That feeling is the thing that won’t let go, the reason I can’t seem to stop typing even though I’m 700 words beyond what I had planned. I intend to spend the rest of my life looking for that feeling. Shonda Rhimes called it her hum. I kinda like that name. Right now, it is faint and a bit distant but it’s getting a little louder every day