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Words and Spotlights

There comes a time in every young writer's life when they must present their work to the masses, prepared to face the heavy blows of criticism, judgement, and worse (boredom and disinterest). I suppose tonight happened to be my time, as my Creative Nonfiction Workshop presented our best work of the semester this evening in the McCain Pub. With nothing to accompany us but a music stand, a microphone, a long legged chair and one of the brightest spotlights known to man, each ENG-220 student read their favorite pieces of the class to an audience mostly made up of their fellow writers.

Because of the nature of the class, I had already had the privilege of hearing a few of the pieces in advance. The way the class has worked all semester revolves around essay cycles. Every two weeks, we write a rough draft based on a loose sort of prompt, such as the definition of a single word or the description and background of a photograph. Our professor, Dr. Knickerbocker, would then randomly divide the class into small groups of 3 or 4, usually by having us pull hastily numbered pieces of paper from his hand. We would read our piece to our group, receive feedback from our classmates, repeat the process with another group, and then turn in a final draft the next week. This way, we always got to listen to a variety of creative nonfiction topics read aloud by nearly every other classmate at some point. I think out of everyone in the class, I got to listen to 95% of them at least one time, some of them twice or even thrice. But since we write five solid essays throughout the semester, chances are good that you might not hear your classmate's favorite piece.

Tonight was a good opportunity to listen to my fellow writers at their best. These weren't rough drafts anymore--these were finished products, ready for mainstream consumption. Usually, during the workshopping, the rough drafts are exactly that: rough. Now there were no excuses to hide behind. No works prefaced with "I know this is bad, but..." or "I already know I'll change this..." These were stories chosen to represent the very best work they had produced--there would be nothing lazy or unfocused here. And I was super impressed.

Everyone brought their A-game tonight, and I learned a lot about my classmates that I hadn't known before. I learned about the culture of social smokers and Volvo drivers. I learned that little brothers don't understand references from The Princess Bride. I learned that Policy Debators are the bomb. I learned that Stephen King's The Dark Tower series is a must read, and that Blue October songs put words and music to our innermost feelings. As someone who hopes to be doing things like this his entire life, I was enthralled by every piece. Knowing I was in a room with such talent made me realize just how far my writing has to go, and what I still can improve.

I, of course, read one of my pieces as well. It was a considerably shortened version of something I titled "Sing Me a Song." It was about--what else?--Choir, and the many archetypes you'll find singing in one, from Conductor's Pets to Easy A's. The original version I wrote for the class was 15 pages double spaced, but for the reading tonight, Dr. Knickerbocker was adamant that we all have no more than 3 pages in the interest of time. Anyone who knows me (or even follows this blog) knows I'm very much a word nerd, so cutting down one of my favorite pieces into a fifth of what it once had been was a challenge.

Reading my piece in public for the first time ever was less nerve wracking than I expected it to be. Outside of a quick jolt of excitement as I made myself comfortable onstage, I felt at home. Sure, the spotlight was bright enough that I couldn't actually see into the crowd, and I had to squint a couple of times because the light was making my paper a bit challenging to read, but the atmosphere felt natural. Maybe it was because most of the audience was just my classmates and not professional writers, but I felt satisfied with how everything went down. If there was ever a time that has confirmed "Yes, this is the right major for you," it had to be tonight. I think the majority of my classmates were against the reading tonight and were only there out of obligation to their grade, but speaking personally, I think it was a defining experience for me.

I hope I get to experience more of these moments in my life. It may be wishful thinking, but I think it would be great if I could one day hold a reading of my own, a presentation of my work to fans and critics alike. But if that day comes, I think it's going to be a long way off.

-Clayton Gefre