My heart was on fire.
I clutched five note cards in my shaking hands, staring back at countless faces. My heartbeat throbbed in my ears. My throat was tight. Why was this happening? I had prepared, spent hours making my slides and perfecting my presentation. My research was solid. Yet fear clutched me as I stood in front of the class, unable to speak. No matter how hard I tried to retain control, my emotions betrayed me. I felt like a coward.
I’ve always been quiet. My fear of saying the wrong thing often prevents me from saying anything at all. I sometimes feel that my contributions to a conversation may turn out to be meaningless or boring. When I do speak up, I sometimes regret it. This leads me to spend too much time worrying about the things I’ve said in the past and not enough time on what I want to say in the future.
My worries peaked early in high school. Anxiety permeated my class presentations and group discussions, hindering me from expressing my true opinions in fear of rejection. None of my friends had come with me to my new school. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was inferior and that my classmates would always know more and understand more than I ever could. I started spending long hours preparing even short class presentations and discussions just so I could feel like I was in control. My anxiety kept me from living my fullest life and from taking the risks that I should have. Striving towards perfection left me with no time to myself and little energy.
College shifted my perspective. I was still anxious, but I found myself comforted by the fact that no one really knew each other at the beginning of my freshman year. Thousands of strangers gave me a newfound anonymity. My anxieties significantly decreased when I decided that I didn’t really care what random students in my classes thought of my words. I realized most people tend not to pay attention to presentations and class discussions anyway. Most are more concerned with what they’re going to say themselves when their turn arrives.
I’ve learned that being quiet shouldn’t stop you from speaking up. Your friends will care about your opinions and view them as valid and worthwhile. Those who dismiss your thoughts are not your friends anyway. Because of this outlook, I began to see myself as an equal to others in my classes and in my life. While I still feel some anxiety before presentations and discussions, I’ve realized my thoughts are valuable, despite their imperfections.
Image: Creative Commons
“You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”
In Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed provides one of the most elegant, sweepingly empathetic perspectives on life and love that I have ever read. Whether she is reflecting on writer’s block, the stages of grief, or marriage jitters, her words are drawn directly from her wealth of hard-earned wisdom and unconditional compassion. I stayed up long hours into the night with this book over winter break, rereading sentence after beautiful sentence. Each page gripped me as a reader and inspired me as a writer.
The book is a collection of letters Strayed has received throughout her time as “Sugar,” an advice columnist for therumpus.net. In response to a mother grieving her miscarried daughter, she recounts her experience as a youth advocate for a group of struggling preteen girls. She gives her letter-writer the same advice her students received: their circumstances will not become any less painful, so to escape it, they will have to “reach.”
Strayed answers many of the letters in this way; her personal anecdotes create an instant bond of lived experience that underlies her responses. What makes her advice so poignant is that rather than directly answering her readers’ questions, she contextualizes them. She reminds a young, insecure writer not to expect instant success. She tells a hesitant boyfriend that the terms of “I love you” can change. By broadening her readers’ scope of consideration, Strayed empowers them to see their emotions as valid. With the acceptance of that simple thought, so much is possible.
Two of my friends and fellow WRC consultants recommended Tiny Beautiful Things to me, and I’m so grateful that this book appeared in my life during college. In an environment that always demands that we have the “right” answers–whether on Scantrons or in interviews–Strayed’s radical empathy reminds me that they don’t exist. There will never be a time where we become objectively enough: a good enough writer, student, friend. Instead, we can only keep trying. We can keep reaching out to the people around us and challenging ourselves to higher levels of authenticity. So long as we “give it all [we] got,” we are more than enough.
Check out the book and Strayed’s column in the links below; you owe it to yourself.
Tiny Beautiful Things
Dear Sugar Column
As a business major, I didn’t think writing would come up that often in my major-specific classwork. Instead, I had pictured lots of class participation, teamwork, and presentations (all of which do occur). But I’ve had to write a few papers every semester as well, to analyze different industries and companies. And I’ve learned that even presentations are a form of communication which can be prepared in advance and outlined to ensure clarity. Writing is how we convey that we’ve done the research, formulated ideas, and created a game plan or strategy on how to improve the situation we face.
It makes sense why writing would be prominent in classes that don’t seem literature focused. Writing allows the transfer of knowledge and it’s essentially your thoughts and opinions captured on a page. No matter what you’re studying, writing can help exemplify your point and help others know that you understand the subject. Communication becomes tangible in the written form.
One of the most important skills I’ve developed during my time at college has definitely been my writing. Whether I’m taking a class within an English/writing focused department or not, written communication comes up regardless. My friends in science-based majors comb through research papers and academic journals to help spread knowledge acquired from experiments and studies. My friends majoring in public policy and government are active readers and writers, for the purpose of disseminating information and keeping up with the news through journalism.
One way to develop this skill is to not overthink it. At the writing center, one of the biggest things we encourage is simply engaging with the content – this most importantly involves talking about it. Once you start vocalizing your ideas, it becomes easier to transfer them to paper to later organize or revise.
Writing is universal – since its invention, it has carried civilization forward by allowing each generation to learn from the last. Across our schoolwork, it allows us to be more critical with our course material and facilitate the transfer of knowledge between us as students, our professors, and anyone else we wish to share with. I’ve always loved how writing helps me communicate across time and across subjects – it helps me keep in mind there’s always something to learn and to share.
Shilpa Garg, 2017