“I’m going to C. S. Lewis’s house, the Kilns, to work on my critical thesis as part of their Scholars-in-Residence Program, which will fulfill my Outside Experience requirement.”
I gave the spiel countless times throughout the first few months of 2018 as I prepared for my trip to Oxford. But one of the hardest questions I’d hear in response should have been simple: What is an Outside Experience?
It’s a number of things. Some participants choose to go on writing retreats, some find a place where they can get teaching experience, some go to other countries to research for their creative thesis. But I think one of the most important common threads for the Outside Experience is a bit cliché, to be honest—it’s about bravery.
For me personally, I thought it wouldn’t be that difficult. I had studied abroad in London in 2010, so this wasn’t my first time traveling alone to the United Kingdom. I would find my way to Oxford and spend two blissful weeks writing my critical thesis. Easy.
But so many details went into the trip, and it required me to be proactive, which really is a form of bravery for those of us who like to please people.
For instance, part of the acceptance process included a phone interview, which is a combination of two of my least favorite things (i.e., phones and interviews). But, even after bumbling through an opening question and feeling like an idiot, the call wrapped up with very positive comments from the interviewer.
Then the review committee took an unusual amount of time to give me a firm answer on my acceptance, and I had a deadline approaching for my OE paperwork. In order to finally get an answer, I had to keep emailing the powers that be while fearing that this pushing would annoy them into denying me.
Then I got my acceptance email (yay!) and I had to get the plane tickets, find lodging and transportation before and after, talk to my employers, decide what books to bring, and more. I was going to make mistakes (bringing the giant hardcover copy of David Sedaris's Theft by Finding may have been one of those mistakes), but I couldn't live in the fear of those mistakes as I am so wont to do.
One of the “bravest” things I did happened shortly after arriving at the Kilns: I gained access to the Bodleian Libraries. The experience involves entering the Admissions department and enduring cross-examination, wherein you try to explain your nascent critical thesis ideas and why you need the Bodleian to work. You must jump through hoops and verbally swear an oath. (If you've read The Kingkiller Chronicles, this may sound familiar.) And then there’s the embarrassment as you try to figure out a library system everyone else knows so well—like the first day attending university, yet you’re only visiting for two weeks. I wanted so desperately to be a part of the library, but it was intimidating as heck to get that readers card and then use it.
But perhaps the hardest thing I found myself doing was simply taking that dedicated time to write. I left my jobs or social obligations and seeming all other possible distractions in the States. But, whether in Oxford or Washington, writing was not going to magically become much easier or much stronger only because I was in a peaceful location. The connection to this place was not what made Lewis or Tolkien or anyone else gifted. It is the writer who makes the difference. Yes, a beautiful location and a lack of distraction can definitely influence my writing, but it will only be helpful if I put in the effort—something I believe will never be easy. That fact scared me.
Because writing isn’t naturally that easy, I’ve held onto a deep-seated fear that perhaps I’m not a writer. Others talk about transcendental experiences of finding the perfect flow of words, and I sometimes sit at a blank screen trying to force myself to type a word for hours. Leading up to my trip, I was terrified that I would be just as unproductive, just as unable to write in that perfect environment as I was in the busyness of my everyday life.
However, in spending all this time devoted to the craft, with few distractions keeping me from
reflecting on what I was doing, a magical thing happened: I enjoyed myself. Not every moment was the bliss of finding a rhythm and writing freely, and sometimes I spent hours researching with almost no helpful results. But I liked it. I liked writing, and it felt right.
What matters most isn’t the location or the connections I have, but that I write. I had to find the courage to ask myself, "Am I a writer?" And, at a deeper level than ever before, I learned that I say yes.