Monday, December 17, 2012


I am captivated by a good story. Who isn't? I saw my dear Minnesotan friend for the first time in months today, and stories were brimming in a moment. This is my favorite time of year. Back they come, returning with their stories.

Pinterest. Stories. ESPN. Stories. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr. Stories. People worry that the news industry is becoming a changeling, but the face of news is as constant as ever: stories.

But still I am afraid. Afraid I don't have a story to tell.

But I'll tell you one anyway. And be warned, it's a Hayley story, full of extraneous detail and an unsatisfying punch line. I had this one professor this semester . . . I hardly know where to begin. I picked up one of her books and read the inside jacket over the summer. It was a charming bit of literary nonfiction about Chevalier Jackson and his foreign body collection, and I thought to myself, I was looking forward to taking a class with this woman. A real author of a real book that real people actually read. Oh, but it was not until halfway through the semester that I realized the magnitude of the intellect I studied under. Apparently she's a pretty big deal? A Google search of her name returns over a million results. (For your reference, Wendell Berry returns two million results.) She has won a Fulbright, she has taught all over the world, she has been scammed by plagiarists posing as The Guardian, she has battled cancer, she's hobnobbed with myriad academics, and even introduced one to our class. (I've met enough famous people this year to get a list going; none of those are good stories, though.)

Her class gave me panic attacks. I've gotten used to sitting through classes where I have no idea what's going on, it's been a humbling quality of college, but this was different. I felt like I was Alice in the rabbit hole, falling falling falling infinitely, rolling head over heels, with nothing to grab onto. Terminal velocity. Weightlessness. I spent every class feeling sick to my stomach. I was sure I would keep falling straight through to the end of the semester. 

And somehow, I fell straight into her good graces. To be fair, everyone in the class was in her good graces; she's a professor who cares foremost that her students learn what she has to teach. (Which is a considerable amount.) But the more I asked questions, parading my perplexity for the class to share, the more she asked, "Are you sure you're not an English major?" She still asks this, and I shudder at the thought. The thought of writing pages and pages of meaningless analysis, asking fruitless questions, pouring over the minutia of countless texts. Dratted details. Is that all I'm good for? I hope against hope it's not. 

And don't get me wrong, those of you know know me know that I love literature. That I will wax pretentiously on The Lost Generation or gothicism in Flannery O'Connor's short stories or anachronisms in Shakespeare's plays. I like to read. And I love stories. English as an academic discipline is by no means worthless, in fact, it is one of the more worthwhile things students can turn their attention towards. (English majors, my hat's off to you. You were braver than I.)

Still, I'm flattered that she sees a place for me in the study of the literary. My heart of hearts knows it is not stern enough for the challenge, but I am comforted that she sees my bewilderment as an asset. That my curiosity is a skill. It is sobering that she thinks the things I write are worth reading. It is terrifying that she thinks my mostly addled musings are worth saying, never mind sharing. And so I can't help but write my final paper with fear and trembling . . .

What if she sees me for what I really am? A mediocre student who really knows nothing about where the literary intersects with the acoustic, who didn't really enjoy her class, who wrote most of the assignments for this class in the middle of the night before they were due and forgot to do the rest of them. A fake who feigned a wee bit too much ignorance, who simultaneously understood more than she let on and comprehended less than she pretended, who stammered questions about MLA-format and writing a literary analysis despite her prior dabbling with both. (What if she sees this post?!)

I have a hunger and ambition to exceed expectations.
But I am sated by fear and laziness.
And so I chronically set expectations low enough to exceed them with ease.

Mine is the story of the underachiever who would be the overachiever. I neither Olga nor Dymov. I am incompetent. I could have cried in the middle of the Christmas party. These kids deserve so much better. 

So I'll keep hunting for my niche, the place I can carve out for me, with my jagged-deep flaws and acrylic bright side and wordy stories. 

1 comment:

Nicole said...

How do you do it? Write with such precision the things I feel yet lack the words to speak?