continued from Climbing Maslow’s Pyramid in Halifax…
I learned about the University of King’s College masters’ program in Creative Nonfiction at a conference in Oxford, England, in July 2016. Now, just over a year later, I was enrolled in the MFA program and about to meet my fellow students.
I came down from my dorm room to the lobby seating area of Alexandra Hall a little early for the welcome barbecue hosted by the U-Kings president because I figured my fellow students might do so as well. I hoped I would recognize a few friendly faces from the meet-and-greet I attended in Toronto last November.
I had crammed for this moment by poring over the biographical sketches we were required to submit earlier this summer—a paragraph about ourselves, a paragraph about our book projects. (Each MFA student develops a book idea over the course of the 2-year program.) I had created a scatterplot chart as I studied the 28 students. Being nearly face-blind, I hoped this crutch would help me coordinate the rush of first impressions about to wash over me. I studied it again before coming downstairs. And sure enough, they were there. I began introducing myself, using the shorthand I had devised—“Hi, I’m Sarah, writing on collard greens. And you?” “I’m Rose, Herman Hesse.” “I’m Gwen. Murderers.” She rolled those Rs with a satisfyingly Scottish burr.
“Writers should wear bells around their necks, as lepers once did, to warn people of their presence,” wrote novelist Nicolas Freeleng. These students didn’t ask to be in my memoir, and faculty advised us to respect the confidentiality of the school program, so that’s as far as I will go as I exploit these characters for my own purposes. From here on, I’ll generalize.
We were like the travelers in the Canterbury Tales—a random mix on pilgrimage to our Halifax shrine of knowledge, telling our tales to each other in a contest to win approval and some day, a book contract. The Canterbury Tales characters are said to be a satire of the three estates of church, nobility, and peasantry. For us, those three estates could be the young, the mid-career, and the retiree. Picture us if you will:
- Young students fresh from or a few years out of school, eager to memorialize a coming of age experience or the vanishing culture of their childhood;
- Working professionals yearning to launch a switch or upgrade to their careers through writing a book;
- Retirees attacking the bucket list goal of becoming a writer, chasing to ground a pet topic, reminiscing about a life experience, or finally turning that youthful masters’ thesis into the book they’d always intended.
More than two out of three intended to write some form of memoir or autobiography.
About a third of our class time in the first week was devoted to hearing each other’s book pitches. This was a strategy both to acquaint us with each other and also to give us practice at articulating our book ideas. The packed auditorium-style classroom grew warm, and the pitch period came in the afternoon, as our collective energy was drooping. I could tell when my fellow students lost their ability to focus by the way they started commenting on the content of the story presented, rather than the quality of the pitch. It’s like when I say I’m interested in life stories and people start telling me a story from their life, rather than asking about life story work. We’re humans—we always go to the story. I gave my pitch in the middle of the middle day of the sessions.
I started with my book’s hook, then described my audience, my qualifications, my intention to co-author the book to develop my ghostwriting skills. I am the first person in the four years this program has existed to come with the intent of writing someone else’s book. From the applause I felt I’d knocked the pitch out of the park. But by the end of the last day of pitching, I felt a thin crack of isolation begin to creep across the surface of my social interactions. I was one of only two people writing a business book, and the only one whose “I” was not actually him- or herself but another protagonist. I became a bit less intriguing to my fellow students.
I had one more opportunity to capture the group’s attention. Two evenings in the second week were dedicated to micro-readings by students in the university pub. I signed up for a reading slot on the first night, choosing a piece from my blog titled “Getting My Mantra” because it described a college experience, and it conveyed a moral lesson about not cheating.
I practiced assiduously for days, repeatedly recording myself reading it aloud on my phone, then walking around campus listening, critiquing and tweaking my performance. That night my reading brought a huge round of applause and a corresponding rush of endorphins. I stayed on drinking beer with my fellow students and faculty until the last pitcher was drained. I couldn’t sleep for hours, so buzzed was I on the approval of my tribe.
And that was the end of that. With each passing day, the memoirists became more narcissistic, stuffed like foie gras geese on advice and encouragement about their projects. The momentary adulation of my “Mantra” performance disappeared without a ripple into our collectively accumulating self-importance.
The program ended with a marvelously Harry Potter-like ceremony called Matriculation. We wore academic robes to shake hands with the deans of the school and have our names inscribed in a 270-year-old book.
I was riding pretty high on Maslow’s pyramid at this point. Inhabiting a little campus with 50 or more people who care as much as I do about storytelling is indeed an experience of love and belonging. With the right cues, repeating Latin incantations with academics in funny robes and hats can feel a lot like self-actualization.
I checked out of my dorm room that weekend, scribbling a list of what I’ll bring next time, starting with emergency rations and a camp cook set. Climbing Maslow’s pyramid was done for the year: now I had to start writing my book.
© 2017 Sarah White