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Things That Scare Us

The year before I retired, I went back to school to get a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Nonfiction. When I graduated two years later, I was a better writer, but I also had a much richer life. There were so many amazing aspects of that experience that it could be the center of any number of blog posts. Right now I’m thinking of it because I’m reminded that, no matter when I open a new door in my life, there is always something life-changing on the other side. It may not seem like it at first, but ultimately things are different after I've been brave enough to step through.

I applied to the program at Goucher because I was going to retire in a year, and I was committed to focusing on my writing in my “new life.” I also wanted to strengthen my writing skills, and I longed to be part of a larger writing community. Now, seven years after my first summer residency in Towson, MD, the experience continues to present new paths in my life.

If we’re lucky, these experiences leave us with our own personal set of talismans to remind us of what we really have inside of us.

Although I’d been teaching writing for more than 30 years before I entered the program, and I’d been an on and off freelance writer for most of that same period of time, I hadn’t really studied writing since I was in my early 20s. As I dragged my suitcase up the driveway to the dorms that humid July afternoon, I felt so scared—out of my league and my comfort zone. My fellow students were mostly working journalists and my teachers were people whose books I had read and admired. I lay on my little twin dorm room bed that first night wondering what on earth ever made me think I could do this.

I learned the answer really quickly: I could do it because I really wanted to do it. Not only was I eager to dig back into my writing, but I wanted to be pushed by being in a setting that was new and scary and exciting. Mostly, I could do it because everyone there was extremely kind and giving and hilarious. We ended each day of the residency with a reading and then “study hall,” a euphemism for talking and drinking. By the time the two weeks were over, I loved every student in the program, and I realized that my teachers would work with me where I was as a writer. It was, by far, one of the top five experiences of my life. It left me with greater confidence, a new set of lifetime friends, and a network of writers to support me in my work going forward.

I think of Goucher so often, partly because I continue to have regular contact with faculty and students from the program. But mostly I use it as a reminder that some of the best things in our lives start out to be really frightening. They push us and they ask us to be brave and to act as if we know what we’re doing when we're worried that we don't. They wake us up and they keep us paying attention for however long they last. If we’re lucky, these experiences leave us with our own personal set of talismans to remind us of what we really have inside of us.

Because I tend to be a nervous person, prone to anxiety about what I’m sure is going to come along and destroy the safety and security of my life, I like things to stay calm and familiar. This underlying angst prompts me to create and maintain routines and rituals that serve as protection against all of what could happen if I’m not paying attention. There is such comfort in these habits that I begin to think that this is how life should be. And probably for most of us—much of the time—these basic practices are good. They keep us focused and confident and feeling safe.

But then I remember the power of Goucher, and of trying something entirely new and daunting. Even during this very odd pandemic and social upheaval, when the world feels alarming and unpredictable and terrifying, I turn to conversations with my friends from Goucher, and I find myself trying some different things in my writing. This reminds me that opening new doors and being courageous is worth the effort. It turns out that pushing myself to explore ideas and different ways of doing things makes me happier. And that happiness makes me better in every way I can imagine.

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