If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing. – Sherman Alexie
I recently saw Sherman Alexie speak at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. I liked his shoes and he was taller and bigger than I expected.
Airplane seats became a topic during his talk, probably between “How do you refine your craft?” and “Ze is totally the proper pronoun.”1
He flies often and passengers sometimes ask him to switch seats. He said what audacity2 a person has to ask another to give up their seat, because “You don’t know what they have gone through that day—emotionally, physically, mentally—let alone in all of their life, to get to that specific seat in that specific airplane going between two or more specific destinations. To earn that specific physical space.”
I connected with that. Hard.
In 2009, four years after graduating high school, the year I was supposed to finish my undergrad work, I signed up for a creative writing class at a community college. All my required books were purchased used, online, at the most student friendly price. The book for creative writing was full of pencil underlines and yellow highlights.
The teacher set a good tone for discussion and, thanks to a concurrent Italian class, I could pronounce her last name. She was clear at the start of the semester about the numbers of poems, stories, and total pages required. Along with that implication of regular writing, she assigned regular reading, neither of which I regularly did.
One day, frustrated by a lack of student engagement, she grabbed my heavily marked book, held it up, and said, “This is how you should be reading and taking notes!” Chastised by myself at what I knew of my reading habits I said, “Those aren’t mine. I bought it like that…” She looked surprised—I did try to make helpful comments and engage at a level appropriately above none—but she let the point stand. (That semester I felt a surprising and unexpected amount of anxiety every time just before the possibility of contributing in any class, which was strange.)
The number of required pages stayed the same no matter how long I waited to write. Three weeks in, thirteen weeks in. A number not more than 100, but far closer to there than me being finished. Sure, I could write more and make that number smaller, but…
I put the work off. While writing can be as simple me typing this now, I or something in me refused to give the poems and stories hiding just beyond my fingers a chance. Instead, anxiety, not one to procrastinate, kept me in its firm, rigid grip.
The final date to drop with a “W” was on my calendar. I took the simplest control of my success or failure in the class, before both the “W” and the page count deadlines, by clicking a few buttons on the registration page. I was out. No need to stress or worry anymore. I emailed the teacher.
She was shocked.
We talked the next day, agreed on penalties if I turn the portfolio in late, and reverted my withdraw by Friday. During a final class session she asked me if she could share my withdrawing story. I nodded yes.
I’m not sure if it helped anyone in the class. I’m not sure if anyone else remembers. But I remember that moment of expressing my anxiety and the possibility of failure due to inaction, the sense of hiding, and a slight sense of relief after connecting with the teacher. After acknowledgement.
If I stayed withdrawn, I could not have taken the next level of creative writing. That means me and some of the best people I still now know four years later, we would never have met.
In fact, dear reader, I may not be sitting in this waiting room chair writing. Perhaps I would have never met Sherman Alexie and made him laugh, or been as involved and leaned-in as I could manage at my final university.
But I was. And I did. And I am.