When I first started writing in high school, words came easily. I’d be on a San Francisco bus, watching the light sear through the blurred plexiglass, and feel compelled to jot musings in the notes app of my phone; or I’d wake up in the middle of the night, sweating and enlivened, and spew my thoughts onto paper as if spurred by some extraterrestrial force. Back then, writing was an independent endeavor. It was something I engaged in when I felt moved to, or when I thought that translating my emotions into a journal might bring about clarity regarding a trivial aspect of my then-life.
Since coming to Barnard, I’ve found it increasingly challenging to maintain the same sort of nebulous, dreamlike approach to artistic expression—that magical state we’re told is what should produce good art. While creativity is transitory and inconstant, the same cannot be said for the rigid, deadline-oriented nature of a liberal arts college. In my three years here, working within these structures has rendered the relaxed headspace that’s ideal for inspiration nearly unfeasible, and I’ve cried real, frustrated tears in the face of many a half-blank page.
Free-flowing bursts of creative expression are foreclosed when producing writing in an institutional setting, wherein divulging personal details can feel violating. In a creative writing workshop last year for a class on the memoir—the first that I’d ever taken at Barnard—I wrote a nonfiction piece that chronicled highly intimate moments in my life having to do with mental illness and personal relationships. On the evening of my critique—the date the class was set to discuss the intricacies of my piece—the stuffy classroom was devoid of natural light, which only seemed to intensify how naked I felt under the fluorescents. My voice trembled as I read a portion of the piece aloud at my professor’s request, sweat staining the armpits of my T-shirt.
Throughout the critique, I found myself flushing at the realization that my peers’ reactions were hearteningly positive. Although I welcome constructive comments, a few of my peers’ comments ventured into territory far more sensitive than mere plot structure and sensory details. Despite innocuous intentions, a conversation that was supposed to revolve around writing somehow became an interrogation about the most weighty of my life decisions. Even though such experiences are part of the nature of being a nonfiction writer, they have nonetheless embedded within me an unshakeable anxiety about just how much to divulge, which has since impeded the liberty with which I write.
Even despite these anxieties, I simultaneously hold the (sometimes self-sabotaging) belief that the more personal a piece of writing is, the more meaning it holds. Because of this, I feel an innate pressure to mine my vulnerabilities in hopes that doing so will result in a beautiful piece of writing. While I’m sure this tendency is redolent of neoliberal imperatives regarding the profitability of marginalized experiences, it also stems from the fact that it’s impossible to write candidly about anything other than the things that happen to you. In the realm of creative nonfiction, refuting a wholly personal lens would constitute weaving stories out of thin air. Especially as a mixed-race, Asian woman writer, I’ve found that my writing is most powerful when it chronicles the most visceral, inexplicable, and idiosyncratic of my experiences—if not for my readers, then at least for myself.
This intimate approach to producing work also extends to my academic endeavors as an English major and a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies minor. Whether I’m researching a novel that revolves around a Vietnamese adolescent’s fraught relationship to whiteness or reading about the debt-ridden experiences of third-world island countries, I am unconsciously engaging in an exercise of self-immolation. Yet, despite its exhausting qualities, I still feel that by forging a personal relationship to the institution, you increase the stakes of academic work, thereby making it more intrinsically valuable.
The line between using my personal and identificatory experiences to forge connections between myself and my areas of study—to the point of emotional drainage—is one that I constantly stumble on, and will likely continue to stumble on in the future. This semester, I’ve appreciated those who have chosen to stumble along with me.
Hana Rivers is a junior English major at Barnard. Overshare on the internet to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the last installation of On the In-Between, which ran alternate Thursdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.