What College is Really About

by Helen Armstrong on December 12, 2015

When I signed up for Writing Poetry & Fiction, I willfully ignored one particular word in the course title: “Poetry.”’

I told myself that there really wouldn’t be much poetry at all, almost admittedly willing it to be so. I’ve always been much more of a fiction writer than anything else. Forays into screenwriting and poetry have ended in frustration and with wads of crumpled paper littering the floor. For years now, I’ve stuck to fiction because it’s where I’m most comfortable. I haven’t forced myself out of my comfort zone because clearly, it seems, there’s no point.

Except that, there is a point. And I learned that during this class.

The first half of the semester was a breeze because we were reading, writing, and analyzing short stories written by professional writers, ourselves, and our classmates. I was in my element. During workshops of my classmates’ work, I would share my opinion freely and confidently. When it was time to critique my short story, I passed out copies to the class with pride.

I’m not in college to take classes about things I already know how to do; I’m here to learn new things and develop new skills. That involves letting go of fear.

Then, somewhere around late October, I fell from my throne of confidence. I was now firmly outside my element, looking back at the warm comforts of the fiction unit, wondering how it had suddenly gotten so cold. I complained to classmates that I didn’t know how to write a poem, that I don’t “do” poetry, and that I had no intention of ever being a poet.

Complaining is all well and good, but at some point, you’re forced to land in your desk chair before a blank Word document, contemplating the blinking cursor, waiting for words to come. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. Everything I could say seemed either cliche or far too personal to share in front of a class and my professor. There wasn’t much time before my poem was due, and I had nothing. Several evenings passed with barely any writing — just a few lines here and there, written hastily and then erased. The cursor blinked on and on.

I probably would have gone on like this forever, if not for one particular in-class writing exercise.

The class periods consist of workshops and exercises. On this day, the professor took us outside to compose a poem about any outdoor object we could find. It was a cool October day, and I sat myself in front of a giant stone statue that guards the bridge near the castle. I chose this object mostly because it was right next to the guardrail, which offered optimal seating. I pulled on my coat and gloves to shield against the chilly wind. I stared at the statue, and wondered: “Is this supposed to be an urn? What is an urn, anyway?”

What is an urn, anyway?

For lack of anything better to write, and very aware that the professor wasn’t far away, I put pencil to paper and wrote down that question: “What is an urn, anyway?”

Maybe it was something about the autumnal air that numbed me to fear of embarrassment, the wind that promised to carry away any horrible mistakes, the leaves that fell from the trees in front of the light blue sky that cleansed my mind with bright colors. Maybe it was just that I had spent enough time frozen in front of a blank document to unjam my brain.

I wrote a poem that I was really proud of, and I actually felt proud to read it aloud to the class. People seemed to like it enough that I felt confident to write another, and another, so that I had three poems to choose from for the next workshop.

Some classes challenge us in surprising ways. A class that I thought would be a breeze turned out to be the most difficult, but most rewarding, class of the semester. I’m not in college to take classes about things I already know how to do; I’m here to learn new things and develop new skills. That involves letting go of fear, even if it means writing a poem that might be awful, or taking a speech class and getting up in front of the whole class every few weeks, or enrolling in a math class to hone math skills I haven’t drawn upon since high school. It’s what college is for, and we have the security blanket of knowing that we are there to learn and experiment. And if we’re really open to learning the most that we can, we’ll give ourselves permission to make mistakes along the way to improving and growing.