There was a time when I couldn’t sit down to write, except to write about writing. As a bratty 11th grader, I’d fashioned not a single line of verse when I boldly proposed an “independent study” in poetry with the impeccable Ms. Cherie Thompson, who, though young-ish, wore tweed and glasses and talked incredibly fast. I don’t remember much of what I produced, squirreled away in her small white cubicle with the shade drawn. I know the cobalt-blue VW Bug of my high-school boyfriend Mike featured prominently (hi, Mike), but other than that, all I remember is Ms. Thompson foisting upon me that universal piece of neophyte-literati wisdom: Keep a journal.
I tried. I took the plain yellow steno notebooks my dad brought home from work and carved them up with an X-acto knife, rendering, from neat rectangles, jaggedly outlined lightning bolts to limn my exquisite teenage angst. I duct-taped over the clumisily corporate covers and added a few flame-like decorations in the same black I used to paint my nails. Black nail-polish notwithstanding, I just couldn’t get my Muse on the phone. Without her whispered nothings in my ear, I knew that writing could never, ever capture all that I “felt.”
I wrote a piece — oh, dear God, this is embarrassing — called “Being 12,” which I’m pretty sure is the single worst specimen of surreal literature ever composed. In it, a boy falls in love with a girl (prophetic, poetic and of course, not me) who spends every day writing in a journal under a tree, stuck in a frenzied muddle:
“I cannot write a book. I cannot write a book, which is real sad, because I’ve tried and tried, and it’s not that the thoughts won’t come, it’s that they come too fast to catch , and even if I did catch them all, I would have all of these thoughts, like a catch from the sea, heaped on a boat’s wet deck. A catch of flopping, writhing fish, but also trash and dolphins and mermaids, all tinted red and gasping for breath in the bloody sunset.”
It was profoundly profound.
When all this fishing landed me at Yale, I took a few writing classes, but the combination of Major English Poets and John Hollander’s tendency, in “Advanced Verse,” to slip back and forth among his 12 or so languages eventually scared me away from the English Major. More fun, methought, would be architecture.
I still applied to classes with two professors I admired (that is, unhealthily obsessed over) from afar: Fred Strebeigh and Anne Fadiman. In my usual style of self-censorship/self-sabotage, I allowed my fear to squelch all appropriate attempts at admittance. The first time I applied, I didn’t feel I had anything “good enough” to present, so I wrote all-new pieces the night before. I was rejected.
The second time I applied, I actually didn’t have anything to present, because my computer had been run over by the veggie-oil-powered hippie bus on which I’d traveled the summer before. Yet again, I wrote applications on the last night. This time, when I was rejected, both Anne and Fred sent me polite, personalized letters, saying that “the bus had surely done me in.”
The third time I applied, I was accepted to both classes.
I’ve managed to squeeze both Anne and Fred into my senior year, and the experience has been upside-down unbelievable. I joined Yale’s most talented writers as a stale old senior, a self-admitted abecedarian. I hadn’t published a single thing on campus. I knew nothing about journalism. I just liked putting words together in funny ways. At last, I didn’t have to worry about being brilliant. I didn’t even have to worry about being good. I could have happily written blather, just to get to hear Fred Strebeigh say “neat,” or learn, from Anne Fadiman, how to cut the sweetness of sentimentality with a “literary pickle.”
These classes have helped me think about writing a different way. I don’t need to carve my notebooks into strange shapes to convince myself that the things therein are valuable. It’s not about what I’m ultimately able to stuff between the covers or onto a resume; it’s about looking at the world and knowing there’s a story hiding behind everything. At night, when I listen to my taped interviews with a crochet artist or a glassblower, I feel like my Muse has finally picked up.
Christopher Buckley ‘75 came to Yale the other day to read from his new book “Losing Mum and Pup” and visit Anne’s writing class. When asked how he could write a memoir about the potentially overwhelming, iconic figures of Pat and William F. Buckley, Jr., his answer was simple: he stayed true to the writing he was capable of, and, most importantly, vowed to K-I-F (keep it funny). This answer made me feel better as I stood up to read, knees trembling, a piece I’d written about smuggling turtles onto a Cleveland-bound plane. No high art, but get this … he laughed.
Until very recently, I was that overwhelmed writer — to the point of full-on, zero-Kelvin, brain freeze. Several thousand days after setting foot on Yale’s campus and fewer than a hundred before I will leave it forever, I am beginning to thaw. And now that I’ve not only written about writing, but written about writing about writing, maybe I’ll finally be able to write.
Emily Appelbaum is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.