On Writing: Go for the Long Vision
March 25, 2016 § 8 Comments
In early March, I send a note to one of my writing teachers. “I’ve been frozen with my writing since I finished [that] essay… I have a low-grade thought in my mind that I’m done, I’m finished. I’m not going to be able to produce another essay I like that much.”
I think of the pages of nonsense mounting in my composition notebook. I focus on the feelings of dissatisfaction that ripple through me after a writing session. And I remember the excitement I woke to weeks before when I knew I had a viable project forming, taking shape, and moving toward completion.
What happens when something reaches the end and the next thing refuses to emerge? What happens when everything new I write embarrasses me and makes me wonder how I could be the same writer who wrote and submitted that finished piece? Have you ever been in this place, I write my teacher. What do you do?
In 1997 I crowd into a basement lecture hall with five or six dozen other college freshman. We climb stairs in the arena style room, fold our bodies into slightly cushioned seats, and pull fresh notebooks from our bags. Below us stands a professor with tufts of white hair sprouting above both his ears. We are bright-eyed students. This is Introduction to Chemical Engineering. The major we wrote about in our college applications. Our essays sang of our desires to pursue careers in this field—a vague degree the adults in our lives pushed in our direction when they saw our knack for balancing chemical equations and integrating polynomials.
“Welcome,” the professor says from far below, standing in front of the green chalkboard. A wide grin takes over his face, and he clasps his palms together. We uncap our pens and scrawl the date across the top of an empty page, ready to take notes.
My teacher responds, “Keep drafting. Go for a long vision. It’s okay if you don’t have another essay for a good while. Keep putting those… embarrassing ideas down on the page.”
So I grab a pen and write line after line in my notebook. A paragraph of reflection. A page that might transform into a scene. I try—better some days than others—to allow words to unfurl and sentences to fall from my thoughts before they slide from my memory. I ignore my lack of sensory detail, my over use of personification, the seemingly pointless ramblings and mundane descriptions, the way even though I know I shouldn’t, I compare these disjointed beginnings to the final version of past work.
Still my pen continues scratching across the page. Sometimes slow and methodical. A measured thought, a well-placed word. But more often speedy scribbles that even I can barely decipher.
Earlier this year my daughter tells an acquaintance of mine, “My mommy is a chemical engineer.” The woman raises her eyes in my direction. She’s always known me as a writer.
“In college,” I say. “My bachelor’s degree is in chemical engineering. I didn’t really like it.” A few words to explain poor career fits and the motivation for reinvention of self.
“Ah, a chemical engineer in paper only.” She smiles. I smile back even as I flinch.
A week later while cleaning out storage containers, I find a composition notebook with a black and white cover much like the ones I use these days to tuck away notes for essays and ideas I must remember. I open the cover and run my index finger over the indentations of my cursive letters. The yellowing book holds a faint crisp smell of many unused pages. The year reads 1997. The title says, Why I Decided to Become an Engineer. A remnant found from an engineering seminar I took the summer before freshman year. Almost 20 years ago, I wrote that I wanted to become an engineer so I could examine, “[R]eal world situations and learn ways to solve the problems.’’
I wanted to find solutions. In the end, a career as a chemical engineer didn’t present the types of problems I wanted to solve. It occurs to me, though, that my engineering studies have circled back to me. I carry with me a mindset gained, a honed ability to make sense of problems, a stamina for exploring scenarios and uncovering unique possibilities. And without remorse I have forgotten how to use steam tables, size a distillation column, or determine the mass balance in a batch process.
But I am an engineer. Not just in paper. Not a slip of my life that has now disappeared.
My teacher tells me that I’m aiming for a long vision. Now I feel myself stumbling through words I’m uncertain will become anything. I see essays in my head that refuse to manifest themselves in my notebook. And I remind myself how I am an engineer beyond the words on a diploma. I engineer phrases and sentences. I identify problems with structure and find solutions. I try and try again to fit parts together and sometimes witness the formation of a glorious whole. In those moments the divide between my chemical engineering days and my writing days shrinks to very little.
Years after that basement lecture hall and the smiling professor with the tufts of white hair, my past informs my present. Because of this truth I can have a long vision for my writing in the aftermath of a season when the right words flowed, the ideas wove together, and I engineered solutions that made an essay soar. Hidden in the paragraphs of new writing that embarrasses me are ideas, reflections, and direction that may very well inform my future work.
Patrice Gopo’s essays have appeared in a variety of publications including Gulf Coast, Full Grown People, and online in The New York Times and The Washington Post. She lives in North Carolina, and she is at work on a collection of essays.