I used the opportunity given to me through the STEP program to attend the 2015 Yale Writers’ Conference, Sessions 1 and 2, in the beautiful New Haven, CT. Session 1 was a 3-week-long program that included an intense workshop and daily programs (journal editor panels, major press and indie press publisher panels, novel pitch sessions, craft talks by established writers including Colm Tóibín and Cheryl Strayed).
I was in a Creative Non-Fiction workshop led by Jotham Burello, publisher at the indie press Elephant Rock Books. As if sharing a personal piece isn’t scary enough, my workshop, save for another 20-year-old, was comprised of writers 40-and-over. I sat around a table with these writers—my own life a fraction of their years writing—feeling terrified, anxious, incompetent. What message could I, a 20-year-old college student from Cleveland, convey that they didn’t already know? How did I get here, a prestigious institution at a competitive writing conference, anyways?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since the third grade, but as I entered into adolescence and adulthood, my dreams swayed. I took positive comments on my ability for politeness. During my second year at OSU, I had become enamored with Creative Non-Fiction. To me, the beauty of CNF lies in its power. Stories can be so deeply subjective, yet the “NF” carries with it a promise of factuality. What better a medium to regain agency, to present a situation as you experienced it?
Of all the stories I might have wrote for my manuscript, there was one that felt so immediate, necessary even, that I could not write anything else. The story ended with, “I blink and I am gone,” and I can’t say I was writing metaphorically.
A week before I moved into Baker Hall East, I was sexually assaulted. I spent my first year at OSU trying to ignore it, and my second year trying to sift through the event as if it held some truth about who I am. Passive. Pathetic. Yes I couldn’t speak, but perhaps I didn’t try hard enough? Perhaps I didn’t care enough about myself to voice dissent. Perhaps I deserved what had been done. The word brave was unanimously used on my workshop day, but I definitely didn’t feel that way.
Some view literature as a vehicle to truth, and my own manuscript conveyed a truth I wasn’t ready to look in the face. While trying to deal with my assault, my self was fragmented. I scrambled to shove my experience away. I thought if I wrote it down into a lyric essay, my assault would become a character’s story instead of my own.
It wasn’t until lunch in the Davenport Dining Hall, directly after my workshop, that I understood the importance of sharing my story. A fellow workshop member came up to me. She gave me a hug and called me brave, and I still didn’t know what to say. She said she’d been keeping a secret for nearly 40 years, only recently had she told her husband and therapist. While traveling in Europe, she met a handsome Italian and naively agreed to go up to his apartment for a drink. She told me my story inspired her to write her own. The next workshop meeting, we shared new pieces we wrote, and my fellow workshop member shared a poignant piece about her assault in Italy. At times, I feared her voice would give out, that the grief would suppress the courage she had left. But grief never won. She left us with an image—a pajama-clad young woman, hurrying past the Trevi Fountain, cradled in her own arms.
It has been almost a year since I heard it, but I cannot forget this image. And I won’t ever forget this image, nor will I forget my own. Of course assault does not define someone, but I’ve learned that in order to live authentically, I must accept all that has happened to me as affecting who I am. I am a survivor, and through my writing I can learn, I can heal, I can define myself through my art rather than through bad memories.
The STEP Program, on the surface, gave me the opportunity to go to the Yale Writers’ Conference where I learned about craft, publication, and my competition in the writing world. I never imagined my STEP experience would truly transform me, but looking back I know it marked a pivotal moment in my personal growth. I connected with other writers, regardless of age, and became confident in my own potential as a writer. I had my first workshop breakdown when I butchered the manuscript my fellow writers once loved. I came to terms with the idea that not all revision is good revision. I learned to love myself through my writing, even if it meant accepting all that I once tried to compartmentalize. Without this experience, I do not think I would have the necessary self-esteem to continue writing, or to feel okay again in my own skin. Without hesitation, I can now say: I am a survivor, I am a writer, my stories deserve to be told.