I arrived in my first writing class, Wildfire Writing with all the wrong ideas and clueless about misery to come. The course description mentioned that any type of writing could be improved, so I assumed that meant boring old bloggers. I paid up and showed up to class with my computer in my backpack.
As the Wildfire students gathered outside the classroom, I looked around and was relieved to see a broad range of ages were represented. I was happy that I wouldn’t skew the bell curve too much.
As it became apparent that more than just a few of the students had been in these classes before (some multiple times), I worried about what I had gotten myself into. I wanted my writing block obliterated in the eight sessions of this class, but each greeting was adding another brick to a mental wall that was going up right in front of my face.
For introductions, we were asked to describe our favorite ice cream. I managed to get through that by saying something about ice cream with chunks of stuff in it.
Then we got our first in-class assignment.
Anyone who has taken a typical writing class will call me dated and naïve for this, but I was not planning on having in-class assignments so I found this news disquieting! We were to remember the favorite ice cream of our neighbor and make up a story around it. Why was it her favorite? Had she loved if for a long time? How intensely does she care about it?
Suggestions flowed but they were only adding to my anxiety. I’ve lived trying to be logical rather than imaginative and each suggestion fractured my focus and overwhelmed my ability to visualize any sort of a story.
I’m not proud of it, but I mentally swear and seek otherworld help when I’m stressed and I’m pretty sure pithy words were floating in my head right then. I tried to squash the language in my brain by developing a great story about my neighbor’s Pumpkin Pie ice cream but when the words of my frustration were vanquished they weren’t replaced by a story of any kind. My head was a numb vacuum that rested on very tense shoulders.
There wasn’t enough calm or enough thinking because when our time for imagination was up, I had only a rudimentary explanation for Pumpkin Pie ice cream. Ugh.
Then our teacher, Christi Krug, gave a brief, but very emotive, discussion about the reasons this class was called Wildfire Writing and we got our next little in-class writing assignment. This came with a spiel about being more creative with handwriting so we would write without computers in class. I protested with some comment about rarely writing by hand, and Christi just smiled and urged me to try because there was research to support that way was more creative.
My computer stayed in my backpack.
Then I tried to organize my thoughts about the assigned topic, my first bike ride. That word “organize” turned out to be a misnomer for this class. It was Wildfire Writing and we were just to pick up a pen and write without evaluating or editing what spilled out. Just blah, blah, blah and let it take us to wherever that little pen wanted to go.
Not much was finding its way out of the folds in my brain and dribbling down to the pen in my hand. I couldn’t even remember learning to ride a bike, I don’t know who taught me, and I have no idea how old I was. Nothing.
I tried to write about riding a bike with a description that probably only had five adjectives or worse yet only five adverbs in it. But I got through the writing session just keeping my head focused on the paper and looking like I was engaged and laying down words.
My pseudo calm evaporated when it became obvious we were being divided into small groups to read our memories out loud. We were to be “amazing” listeners but it is hard to be focused when you are worried.
While I was supposed to be listening as the first classmate in my group read a story full of memories about learning to ride a bike, I’ll admit that I glanced at the paper that sat before me. “Oh shit,” I thought, “I can’t even read my writing!”
That night’s break was the first time I nearly bolted from class to avoid the fires of my discomfort. I have never felt like a creative or expansive writer and I have avoided thinking a lot about my history. Putting those two shortcomings together was not working right then for me.
But it was the expectation of public sharing that ignited my discomfort into aversion. I escaped to a room with “Women” on the door and sat in a little private stall that walled off my distress while I tried to slow down my breathing and think about my options.
I decided that it may be miserable, but I would stick out the rest of the first class for I was able to think clearly enough to know that leaving would not result in writing on my blog about aging.
I had some rough moments in bed that night as I rehashed the misery of class. And then I focused my thoughts on the times, like we all have had, when I got myself into something hard and just carried on to some sort of reward—a reward that may have been only knowing I had carried on. I didn’t pay my tuition to argue with the expert and I don’t typically wilt from a challenge, so in the morning I committed myself to Wildfire Writing—at least for the rest of the class.
Christi gave us writing prompts about our past or reflections about the present so that we could develop our “voice.” I’d blocked or numbed out a lot of my past so this wasn’t easy, but that was her approach so I picked up a fat pen with a padded grip and started writing.
I did it. I wrote, by hand, 15 minutes each day as measured by a timer on my phone. I know that using a timer is embarrassing, but it kept me going for it’s hard to make excuses about 15 lousy minutes a day. At times I could only write about how frustrating it was to be thinking about the past and writing by hand. I was moving on.
I survived because I was too naive to realize that my misery would become far worse.