The talent around us

Courtesy C. M. Handler via Wikimedia

Let me introduce you to Phil:

Phil is double-anxious (and also hungry).

Imagine spending an entire day wondering whether or not you’ve left your air conditioner running. These things cost money! You’re just not sure, and to top it off, your roommate isn’t home and now you’re here in this writing class until 10 — the air conditioner could have been running all day and you have absolutely no way of knowing.

This is the mental space Phil is in right now.

And there’s more to worry about, too. Because Phil is also hungry. Now imagine that you’re training to run a marathon. This is a really cool and maybe even unexpected circumstance because running a marathon isn’t something you’d think of as being cool when you’re younger, but now that you’re in your late twenties and a bit more mature it seems like the perfect thing to do. And preparing to run all those miles means you’re grazing throughout the day. So food is pretty important. So are calories. And it’s not only when and how much, it’s also what you’re eating that matters. But if you’re in a writing class for three hours, how will you graze? Will there be an opportunity to eat? Will there be food? What will you eat? What if you can’t eat?

Phil pulls out a protein bar seemingly from nowhere, begins eating, and wonders… What if I’m hungry again later?

There is always something to worry about…

Last Wednesday night, class ended with introductions like the one I wrote about my partner, Phil, but it began with a question: How many of you are writers? A loaded question because here were 12 of us, sitting in a writing class. And yet, only a few hands went up. I began taking classes at Gotham Writers Workshop in March, focusing on Creative Nonfiction, and so far the scene on the night of a first class is always the same: few want to admit to being a writer with any conviction, but when the time comes to begin writing and reading out loud, talent comes pouring out. It is true that still waters run deep, and that we need not look far to find talent — it’s all around us every day.

Creative Nonfiction is very important to me right now. Telling stories from one’s own point of view or telling the story of another pushes others to better know and understand them — to understand what makes one tick, what thoughts and feelings form the positions they take and decisions they make in their lives. I tell stories from my own point of view for precisely this reason, and I want to inspire others to share their views, too. Compelling and insightful stories are an extremely powerful tool for encouraging serious, patient consideration of the perspectives and concerns of others. And I imagine that if we’re all better at considering each other’s perspectives and concerns, tolerance and understanding will become the norm.

I chose Gotham Writers cautiously, as a Plan B. And what I mean by that is I’d been looking into j-school for the past year and becoming discouraged because earning a masters degree in Journalism would require a full-time commitment, both time-wise and financially. CUNY has a new Social Journalism MA program that directly mirrors my heartfelt interest in journalism, data and community organizing — a step beyond even just how telling people’s stories can impact and aid communities. Here is in part how CUNY describes the course:

Social journalism is about more than producing “content” and filling space. It is also not just about social media, although we think it is vital for today’s journalists to understand and master these tools. Social journalism is first and foremost about listening.

Whether communities are brought together by geography or shared interest, social journalists serve them best by building relationships and helping them produce tangible impact that goes beyond page views or clicks or “likes.”

Often, doing so will involve writing stories, but it will also include sophisticated use of data, connecting people with each other, and helping a community to organize and take action.

The future of journalism? As of now, I think, yes. But in order to allow our future journalists to become journalists, we also need part-time study options.

Gotham Writers Workshop is a part-time option. The teachers are all professional novelists, screenwriters and journalists. But what about the students? When the need to apply and be accepted is removed, what kind of students can be found in classes? I’ve been pleased to find that at Gotham, I’ve only encountered truly talented, interested and passionate writers looking to develop themselves.

I’ve been writing for many years, never professionally. It took a long time to feel comfortable with sharing the things I’ve written, and even when I do I’m fairly noncommittal about it. It’s easy to post some stories on a blog and then not publicize them at all. Those stories are “out there” for people to find, though no one is actively trying to connect an audience to them. This is the approach of someone who is, in fact, a good writer but who is also afraid of actually being a writer. Someone who kind of wants to be noticed but who is not entirely comfortable with being noticed. If I had to describe myself in two sentences those two would sum me up perfectly.

So I thought, before considering j-school further, Gotham would be a wonderful place to cut my teeth on sharing my writing with groups, and giving and receiving constructive criticism specific to writing.

So far, so good.

I mentioned that class on Tuesday night ended with introductions. It was the first of a six-week course, and introductions during a first class are important, even if they don’t come until the end. But the manner in which we made our introductions during this class grabbed me in a way I hadn’t expected. It brought us closer together as a writing group, encouraged listening, and required storytelling:

We began by choosing two adjectives to describe how each of us was feeling at the moment and then taking some time to write a story connecting ourselves to those adjectives. Interviewing the person sitting next to us — a total stranger at the time — came next. We described our stories to each other and explained why we picked the adjectives we picked. We probed for further insight, and generally got to know one another. Then we wrote an introduction of the other person based on what we’d learned.

I introduced Phil to the class, and Phil introduced me. That’s how it went until all 12 of us had been introduced.

Before we left class for the night, Phil turned to me and smiled. He had the deepest blue eyes I’ve ever encountered — like literal tiny oceans — that twinkled when he said, “That was really good!”

It’s scary introducing someone you’ve only known for a few hours to a group of people while they’re sitting right next to you. It was good to know from the source that I’d really captured the essence of Phil on that day.

But more than that feeling of accomplishment, I left class feeling inspired and happier than I’ve been in a long time. Every introduction I heard that night proved to me that there is more to anyone, on any day, than ever meets the eye. Everyone has a story, often very deep and moving. And talent isn’t just sitting within the upper echelons of society — talented people are all around us. Like shooting stars, they can take off at any time. Discovering that undiscovered talent and surrounding ourselves with it as we all help each other to develop is one of the most rewarding experiences to be had.

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