Write What Breaks You
It was our first meeting. I met him outside at a picnic table on a crisp Vermont morning. Squinting into the sunlight, we sat with coffee and reading lists and a study plan at our elbows, feeling sure we had been mismatched. “Did you even pick me?” he, a wildly expressive poet asked me, a carefully composed creative nonfiction writer, trying her hand at fiction in an MFA program. Yes I had. I had requested him as my faculty advisor because I knew how he revered, and wielded, the beauty of language. “Write about what breaks your heart,” he would tell me. And, I would wonder whether my heart had ever been broken.
This advisor and I would work together for two semesters. Though we had opposite lives—he single, living in Brooklyn, and I married with children, living in suburban Florida—we found common ground in writing. I admired his; he hated mine. At most, he would like a sentence within the creative pages I dutifully sent to him every 21 days. Once, he appreciated a whole page. Frustration turned to panic. I feared I had made a $40,000 mistake, and worse yet, I had no backup plan other than writer. While his was only one opinion—and he emphasized this—the thing was, we agreed. That one line and one page this advisor noted were the shards of writing I loved, too. These words had been gathered in some raw, organic way; and he could tell.
One day, nearing the end of the crucial third semester, I was at a loss for what to try. I went for a run and then stood crying in the shower because you cannot graduate with one good page. I got angry, angrier, and in that defiance, something broke. Wrapped in a towel, dripping water spots like giant teardrops on the closest paper I could find, I sat on the bedroom floor and wrote with fierce abandon. I wrote from a deeper echoing place, where good and bad do not exist, and there is only what you must say, and how. When those pages (typed up) came back, the comments reflected a whole new tenor of praise, almost celebratory. He knew I had broken open, maybe what he had been after all along. Before this, I wrote from my intellect. He wrote from his wrecked heart. I had just found mine.
From then on, I wrote and rewrote my manuscript pages well enough to graduate with an approved thesis. It was not a great thesis, but the process of writing it gave me access to being a great writer. What I learned went beyond the writing of fiction or creative nonfiction or poetry. I learned we are all broken in ways vast and small, and essential. And, it is in these imperfect places where—if we writers have the courage to go there and look—we glimpse the heartbreaking beauty of language, and life.
Photo Credit: llimllib via Compfight cc
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that this contributor was featured in Issue 18.