If you had asked me to describe myself a couple of years ago, I would have replied with a sentence of five words:
I am a word person.
I have recited that sentence countless times. I have nodded in agreement when people used it to describe me. What moved me most, I would have told you, were words – their beauty, their authority. I was made of words, I was convinced, constructed out of story. Words and stories: that was my whole story. This idea felt right. It felt like fact.
We define ourselves, for better or for worse, by the stories we tell. I want to offer a short story that feels like the latter: At the opening dinner of the first To Think To Write To Publish session in Bethesda, Maryland, I introduced myself with another sentence of five words:
“I am obsessed with narrative.”
Six days later, I realized I had no idea what I was talking about. That moment at the banquet began a period of my life that ended with me realizing what I’d long seen as a comfort was actually a curse. I wound up questioning the way I saw the world and my place in it. Consider my conversion, if you would, a story in three acts.
At the first session of workshops I attended in Bethesda, I met and collaborated with people whose passions and career trajectories were unlike mine. They were doctors and historians and scientists. They thought about science and policy the way I thought about narrative structure and scene and theme. I left those six days of sessions admiring them, living in a half-canted state of wonderment. They had decided to step outside their areas of expertise and learn something new and difficult – all to bring their knowledge to wider audiences.
On the last day of the Bethesda session someone joked with me about my introduction – that moment at the opening dinner where I described myself as obsessed with narrative. I laughed, but inside I cringed. After nearly a week in these new surroundings, my go-to story felt narrow. The sensation faded – I let it fade, I should say, the way we tend to dispatch with any storyline that doesn’t align with one we already know. But I never fully forgot.
A year and a half later, I was walking out of a hotel room in Tempe, headed to the first day of meetings during the second round of TWP. My phone rang. It was my boss, Patsy Sims, director of the MFA Program in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College. I can’t talk, I said. That’s OK, she said, I just had a quick question.
She told me that she was going on leave to write a book. Would I be interested in becoming the interim director while she was gone?
I looked at my watch. I needed to meet a group of people in the lobby of my hotel in four minutes. I said yes. I hung up the phone. I walked through town with my fellow mentors to a meeting on campus and made small talk. And as we discussed our goals for the week a large part of my brain suddenly went full-on klaxon, asking exactly what in the name of all that’s holy I had just done.
This wasn’t part of my story! I wasn’t an administrator! I had worked on the faculty in Goucher’s program for fourteen years. I was by profession and most likely by cellular makeup a writer. A word person.
A couple of days later I sat eating a boxed lunch in a ballroom filled with mentors and writing fellows as Lee Gutkind performed an operation on a story that he calls a yellow test – highlighting in yellow the sections that contain characters and action that elevate it past flat exposition into something that felt more like life. Into something that somebody would want to read.
I was thrilled to be here, surrounded by scenes and words and smart people. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d agreed to do; my brain still felt furred with nervousness. I pushed aside my half-finished sandwich and looked around. To my left one of the fellows took notes on his laptop. By training he was a doctor. He hoped to master narrative to call attention to flaws in the practice of medicine. He looked over and smiled. And the awkward feeling I’d felt in Maryland a year and a half earlier about my narrow mindset returned fully formed – to be precise, the feeling snapped into the form of a question:
If so many others could willingly venture someplace new to do good work, to question what they thought they knew, what was stopping me?
There’s a great scene in a silly film that I keep thinking about as I write. It’s a Cary Grant movie from 1951 called People Will Talk. Grant plays Noah Praetorius, a doctor who teaches at a medical school and runs a clinic. Being Cary Grant, he also conducts an orchestra that consists of students and faculty at the medical school. Walter Slezak is his friend, Lionel Barker, an atomic physicist who plays in the orchestra.
Praetorius, a gynecologist, practices some unorthodox methods of treatment; one of these is marrying a patient played by Jeanne Crain, who finds herself pregnant to a dead boyfriend and in a state of distress shoots herself. Grant operates on her, then marries her. The movie makes no sense, which is one of the best things about it. (It helps that it’s – yes – well written.)
The absolute best thing about People Will Talk is a two-minute, thirteen-second scene in which Grant and Slezak play with model trains. They literally get their signals crossed; the trains crash. Grant storms into the room where the models lie on their sides and confronts Barker about the reason for the collision:
– And whose fault is it, my fine atomic friend? You can’t go around smashing everything you see. You know, everything isn’t made of atoms.
And Barker replies:
– Yes, it is.
That exchange always struck me as hilarious: Slezak’s dishevelment and polished certainty in the face of Grant’s elegant fit. Grant was entirely certain he was right – though you understood he was entirely wrong. He wasn’t thinking things through. You’d think it would be obvious, but it took me a long time to understand why I remembered the moment at all.
Hindsight of course makes it simple: because I used to think, or underthink, the same way. I assumed I lacked the skills to run a writing program or venture in any meaningful way outside areas I knew well. I considered that as fact, even though I had no idea whether that was true or whether that was just a story I chose to tell myself. Even though as a journalist I had made a living question every piece of information I came across.
In all of TWP’s workshops and meetings and impromptu strategy sessions at dinner, I learned a great deal from the other mentors and the writing fellows. But what meant the most is the thing the program urged me to unlearn – that automatic retreat into all I considered fixed and absolute. The unquestioned theme. The untested hypothesis. Working with people who decided to become writers despite years of training in other fields made me wonder what would happen if I tested my old assumptions – maybe smashed together a few things I never saw as possible.
The writer Marilynne Robinson once wrote that she likes to seek analogies in science because of the discipline’s bent toward hypothesis. “All thought always inclines toward error,” she added. “The prejudices that would exclude one tradition of thought, be it science or be it theology, from this tendency are simply instances of the tendency toward error. … We are inappropriately loyal to our hypotheses, rather than to the reality of which they are always a tentative sketch.”
Apart from the immediate successes of TWP – the grants awarded, the articles and books published and recognition gained – to me the program’s most lasting value could be its call to examine our loyalties, question what we’re made of, if only in our minds, and keep remembering that reality is far more interesting than anything we believe we already know.