I was given a chance and I flunked it. Actually, I have been given many chances and I’ve flunked them many times. I revisit them sometimes when I least expect it. Â It occurs to me lately during the times I have chances to not fail, that I keep failing because I’ve failed before.
I used to be a very â€œcan count onâ€ sort of woman, and I would like to return to her. I have some things. Autism, maybe some OCD, I’m sick, I cannot bear children, this haunts me, both physically and mentally. In a way I find myself embarrassed by these things. I never really dealt with any of these things before because I was just sort of in distraction mode. I’m used to being rushed to the hospital and nurses brushing the hair out of my eyes off my forehead because I was born with a weak constitution. I’m used to doctors saying they’d like their colleagues to come â€œget a lookâ€ at my ultrasound illuminated insides, which are not like other people’s. But I never really thought of myself as a sick person, because I never really thought at all. Seemed weird, plain weird. I distracted myself a lot. I didn’t think. But as I draw nearer to my 30s I find myself flunking good things again and again: relationships, jobs, friendships, writing assignments graciously handed to me. I’d like to stop with the flunking, it’s not chic to have problems other than maybe a smoking addiction, broke art lifestyle, perhaps anemia is chic. Other than those, it is not okay to have problems. We as a society, we as Darwinian creatures do not like to smell weakness. I smell like weakness, I need to sleep a lot.
One of my biggest chances I flunked was my MFA program in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. I was studying under a woman who I loved named Mary LaChapelle. I loved her for many reasons. I loved her writing. I loved that she was open and proud about being an intellectual, a writer as a person–not someone who writes in addition to their life, but someone who is a writer in a life. I loved that she loved Grace Paley, who had, I think, suggested Mary be assigned the Director of the Writing program in the first place.
When I got to campus in 2006, I was in the middle of so many things I hadn’t yet walked away from, and I’ll be honest, I was 25 and I don’t think I was emotionally ready to be at an MFA yet. I wasn’t old enough to understand, anything, probably. I cared about art and writing as art and I had a fuck all attitude. I felt that my relationship to literature was that I was literature, which was pompous to say the least. The first day of class we went around the classroom (which was packed there were 15 of us, and the entire program at the time only took 20 writers in each genre Fiction, Poetry, and Non-Fiction, so this is like a good percentage of everyone on grad campus in this one room. I once asked the Dean how many applicants there were and she said she estimated around 4,800 yearly. I’m giving the numbers to better show you how much I screwed up this chance. The stakes were high. 60 people had made here it out of nearly 5,000 applicants, and 15 of them are sitting in a room with Mary LaChapelle who had been picked to lead by Grace Paley, and everyone is going around the room saying who they are and where they were coming from and why they were here. I looked up, with an attitude, and I said, â€œMy name is Nicky and I am here to write.â€ In this classroom were people who would go on to start promising careers. Fiction writer Johnathan Callahan, later published in The Collagist, Hearst Editor and Tin House book’s Katie Ruth Arnold-Ratliff was there. This was before then, when Mary had us talking about whether our dreams were something we had experienced as life events. She meant actual dreams, she said they were as real as the rest of our days events. She had us reading the greats. She was intellectual, metaphysical, and an open woman and I loved her. I was also hideously mean to her because the entire experience scared me constantly. The first day we’d met one on one in Mary’s office, there were questions, and I was terrified the entire time. I was a first generation college graduate. I was coming from a small town. Going to New York symbolized returning to the place my immigrant family had lived in for 40 years after coming to America by boat. I was dealing with a lot of emotions. The meeting ended with me literally saying to Mary and myself, out loud, the words, â€œI am supposed to be here.â€ I said them, and you can ask her about this, while running out her doorway, over my shoulder, down her cobblestone famously carved steps, and she actually did call out after me, running, â€œI know you are.â€
But first, I had to fail.
We had been assigned an essay by Charles Baxter called “Against Epiphanies.” The essay posited that the consumer requires an arc, a neat ending, and that it’s awful. The essay posits for modern art, essentially. Mary was trying to tell us to write whatever we felt like writing. I argued with her for weeks. I said that we as faulty humans require things, Baxter was right, the consumer needs an ending, needs to be tucked in, needs a head on a stick planted for the village to exhale at, but that he was wrong if we want to be commercially successful, we must have an epiphany. I said we weren’t ready for Baxter. I argued while watching her literally sink backwards in her chair, disappointed. In me.
Later, years later, I would go on to similarly screw up varying other relationships in my life. It would take me years to get to thinking about how to stop screwing up, and the day I did, something happened. Something good happened, and that same day, I found a writing exercise from Mary’s class in my email, as I was looking through archived material, doing some spring cleaning from over spammed email accounts. The exercise was called, “Think Of A Character.” When I found it, I realized I had to start thinking of myself as a character. If I were to step back, to look down at my life, removed, how would I see it? The following are the writing exercise questions from Mary’s class. That semester costs $5,500 dollars for 12 classes, so, if you’re looking for writing assignments to jumpstart your own narrative, you’re welcome.
Think of a Character
1. Think of a Character
-My name is Nicolle Elizabeth. My friends call me Nicky.
2. Think of something Concrete your Character wants
-I want to stop failing, and I want to write.
3. Set your Character on a quest for this Concrete object
-I am on a quest to write something which is greater than myself.
4. Your Character will encounter three obstacles to obtaining this object *You have the option to create a reversal in the plot so that at some point your character almost has the object but then loses it again.
-a.Â My first obstacle is my self.
b. My second obstacle is my ability and the limitations within it.
c. My third obstacle is my illness and how to navigate the world without feeling sorry for myself, but really it’s how to live.
c.-My plot reversal will be when I write something which is greater than my self.
5. Your Character finally obtains the object *You have the option of having your character obtain the object through magical or divine intervention
-The object will be the book, and there will be both magical and divine intervention needed to get me there.