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.
As I stood on the little platform so very high up in the air, the ropes-course woman cleared her throat, twice. "You can step off the side," she said. "Or you can jump."
"OK," I said, clutching the telephone pole, leaning my head against it. I kept wanting to engage her in conversation, to maybe have a cup of tea way up there in the freezing-cold wind, and talk, for example, about how stepping into air so far above the ground just doesn't feel right to the brain. We could talk about cognitive abilities, brain chemicals, survival mechanisms. We could talk about the meaning of life and the best way to live it.
"Just leap," I am always telling my students. "No throat clearing. No explaining yourself. Just tell a dang story, and tell it well, and tell it true. Don't tell me the story you think I want to hear. Tell the story you want to tell. Just jump." I realized I could have a talk with this woman about that topic, too, about how writing is an act of bravery.
"Um—" I started.
"You can step off the side of the platform," she said again. "Or you can jump."
When you are standing way up on a platform in northern Colorado, you can see a long ways. I could see Wyoming in one direction; I could see the Rocky Mountains in another direction; I could see that flat, hard ground way below me. I could see the dozen graduate students down there, too, their small faces staring up, making hand motions that meant I was supposed to leap. I'm fairly certain they were wondering what was wrong with their teacher, the one who had been advocating bravery of the heart for weeks and weeks now.
As I stood on the platform, I realized that the comment my student made was really bothering me. Before I died, I wanted to apologize to her and anyone who felt like her. I didn't want to cause this amount of anxiety to anyone. "Forget the essays!" I wanted to shout. "Forget telling some of the most real, true, raw, and difficult things about yourselves!"
But then I realized I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it because, somewhere deep inside, I hoped that, in the end, maybe even the most reluctant students might be grateful for the chance to write something beautiful, true, personal—and to write it well.
And so I jumped. I am quite certain that my heart did not beat for a moment; the silence was astonishing. Then the ground swooped closer, the ropes caught me as they were designed to do, I careened forward as if on a giant swing, and I laughed. Oh this is fun! I thought as I went flying, as I heard the students cheer, as I heard myself scream in delight.
Right afterward, we went to the classroom. I got up to talk a little about the beauty of the personal essay. As usual, I saw some biting of lips, some skeptically raised eyebrows. One person had her head on her desk, encased in her folded arms, as if she were weeping. No kidding, I thought to myself. I hear what you're saying now. And then, perhaps with a bit more sympathy, I more or less said: jump. m
Laura Pritchett is a contributing editor for 5280. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.