Recently I found myself standing on a very tiny platform that was attached to the top of a very high telephone pole. I wasn't happy about it: I don't like it when the world starts spinning so fast that it nearly flings itself out of orbit, and I also don't like the feeling of vomit lodged in the same tube that is designed to carry oxygen to my lungs. What I really didn't enjoy in this particular instance was what I was supposed to do next: jump.
I was at one of those crazy ropes courses—high platforms, thin balance beams, ropes everywhere—at Colorado State University, where I sometimes teach, the teaching being something I love, the ropes course being something I had avoided, on the theory that I like living. But my exuberant co-teaching professor had set up this expedition, and I felt a good-natured obligation to go. Plus, I like to think I'm a gung-ho gal—a notion that persisted until I watched the students gasp and cling and leap onto various tall torture devices. Some were crying. At that point, I decided that my primary role, as teacher, should be limited to cheerleading. Way to GO, I hollered. Excellent work!
I meant it, too. My cheers were genuine. I was bubbly proud to see these fellow humans scale, plunge, dive, shake, cuss, scream, and giggle their way through difficult physical maneuvers. And I realized with relief that I could be proud on the ground. But then this happened: One student, who was visibly shaking after climbing a tall pole and walking on a thin wire forward and backward and then being lowered on belay down through the long, long expanse of air (all this, while being pregnant!), said to me, "Well, writing the personal essay you assigned was worse."
"My assignment was worse than that?" I asked, incredulously. Impossible.
"Yes," she said.
"Impossible," I said.
"Yes," she said again, fiddling with her harness. "At least with this ropes course thing, it's just over."
It's the altitude, I thought. It's adrenaline messing with her brain. Pregnancy hormones.
"You're sort of kidding, right?" I tried.
"No," she said, stomping off. "I'm not."
I sometimes forget that other people don't have the same desire I have to write about every personal thing that happens to me—from my love life and the incredible lows and highs of parenting to the various qualities of loneliness or my death mantra. For better or worse—possibly worse—the one thing I probably value most is openness. Hence my career: Writing about deeply personal things is how I make my living. And when you do something every day for a decade, you forget that other people aren't as comfortable with it.
As I argue in my classes, I don't do this writing (or ask students to do this writing) for the navel-gazing. On the contrary, I believe it is an act of selflessness to share your story so that others feel less lonely/weird/scared on this spinning planet. I write personal essays because reading other people's personal essays has made me feel like I have friends out there—that I am connected, rather than dislodged, from humanity.
I also write because stories help me perceive and possess my life; that is, stories help me understand my life, and then live it better. And also, of course, because I believe the creation of art—or heck, the attempt at the creation of art—enlarges the world and expands the consciousness. We write to discover the unknown capacities of the mind, the mysterious life of the heart.
Perhaps, in fact, writing is like jumping from a telephone pole. It might leave you stunned and breathless, but also a bit brighter and more alive. Which is why I had to jump.