The wind was cold that day. I can remember that much. I stood at the top of the fire escape looking down to the windows of the quickly filling classroom and waited. As always, Professor McClintock came to the three windows lining his room and opened them wide. “The sounds of nature are always inspiring, “ he would say, “and if not those sounds, maybe we can eavesdrop on some conversations going on outside.” I was careful not to move. Afraid my feet would rattle the cages of metal forming precarious stairs. I counted silently to twenty-three. The number of seconds I thought I should wait before carefully moving closer to the open windows. The number of days since I had, reluctantly, dropped the class.
I had always wanted to be a writer. My mother has “books” that I wrote when I was seven. Nancy Drew and the Drug Dealers (boy, I was an inventive titlist, wasn’t I?), The Longest Race (based on a footrace I had won against the meanest kid in our neighborhood) and various others that are too embarrassing to list. I was never sure I had the talent to be a writer, but I certainly had the drive.
As I grew older, however, I grew wiser. Dreams were fine, but student loans and mortgages were the reality. I’d claimed my major as Speech Language Pathology, but I was doubling in Creative Writing on the side. My passion, my hope, was to write things that moved people. Fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry, anything made of words, anything from my heart or my mind, I just wanted to write them and have others read.
But I knew how unlikely it was that I would make a living at that. Even the best of writers sometimes never get published. These were facts that were drummed into our heads from the beginning of every writing class, every literature class, I ever took. “Don’t expect to make a living of this. Not creatively. You will find jobs as professors, journalists, over the counter medication description/instruction writers, but not creative writers. Very few ever make it.”
Speech Pathology was the logical route. Medically related – something I’d always had a great desire for – and stable. A very manageable income combined with the fact that I would be helping people everyday. I loved the thought. But it was tempered by the fear of never being able to write. So I kept taking both sets of classes. Eighteen to twenty-four caseload hours a semester; I killed myself to keep both my dreams alive. But you can only feed off hope so long before your plate is empty. My senior year, I realized where my focus should be.
So, I dropped my Advanced Writing course to allow more time to study for the GRE and the completion of my thesis. But I couldn’t stop attending. For a week after I’d dropped the course, I continued to go to class. It wasn’t long, however, until the red tape of the university lifted and Professor McClintock was made aware that I had dropped his course.
He pulled me into his office after class that morning and expressed his disappointment. “You’re one of the most talented writers in my class. If I’m honest, you’re the best writer. You are one of the few who could make it. Why are you dropping this class?” I explained the reality of my situation, my fears and my belief that I could STILL be a good writer, only in my spare time instead of as my main focus. He said he understood, but that he would have to ask me to no longer attend the class. “If you’re not going to be serious about writing, then I need to focus my attention on those students who ARE serious about it. I can’t help you if you won’t help yourself.” And that was that. At least as far as he knew.
Three mornings a week, I climbed the fire escape. Content to just listen to his advice. Thrilled to hear the readings of the other talented writers in the course. Moved by the open criticism and honesty that was expressed. I took notes more dutifully than I had when I was actually in the class. It seemed more important now, more urgent. Before, I thought I had all the time in the world to learn these things. That Professor McClintock and the other instructors would always be there for me with a quick smile and a fast red pen. But now . . . it looked as though I’d burned my bridges.
So for fifty minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I made my perch on the cold metal stairs and listened intently to the words drifting out the windows.
Holding on, the only way I knew how, to my dying dream.