As he packs cables and dry-erase markers and his worn tablet into the hand-me-down backpack he’s held onto through three jobs and more years than he can count, one student lingers. He senses she is waiting for him to acknowledge her before she speaks, and he tries hard not to rub at his temples or to run his fingers through his hair. He is horrible at hiding his tiredness, his impatience, and evaluations are coming up. He cannot afford to be the asshole he’s sure they’re all beginning to see him as.
Slowly, as he zips up the backpack, he raises his eyes to meet hers. “What’s up?” he says.
“I don’t know what to write,” she says. “I mean, I have ideas. Like, enough ideas for a novel.”
“But you don’t know where to start?”
She nods. “Do you have any advice?”
He does, but it’s all useless. ‘Just write,’ is the first thing that comes to mind, so he says that. But then he backpedals, stumbling over his words, trying to make the simple, terrible truth of facing blank piece of paper a little less daunting for this young woman looking to him for comfort.
“You just have to start somewhere,” he says.
He wants to say with a pen and a piece of paper, but he knows his snark will not go over well. He knows that, even though he doesn’t mean to be snarky, that’s how he will come across. It’s the simplest advice that’s the hardest to hear. But it’s the truth: so many of them don’t know where to begin because they are afraid of sitting down with their notebook and failing. They sit at their laptops, cold coffee in a cardboard cup, stale clichés in the ashtray, the clock in the right-hand corner of their screen flashing toward a looming deadline—they sit there, having left themselves no time to fail.
‘Failing is important,’ he wants to say, but doesn’t. He knows that won’t help her either, not at this stage.
“Where do I begin?” she asks, rubbing at her temples, running a hand through her hair.
“With trouble,” he says. “Only trouble is interesting, so start there.”
“But there’s so much trouble to choose from,” she says. “So many ideas.”
“Then start there,” he says, thinking of the story he wrote at the end of seven pages of chicken scratch about his failures as a writer, a teacher, and a husband. It wasn’t half-bad, that one. No idea where it came from, except maybe from the habit of putting one word after another.
She shakes her head and leaves him alone in the room, muttering something incoherent and angry under her breath.
Later that night, when he has no idea what to write himself, he remembers his own advice and starts there, back in that room.
A lingering student. A worn-out backpack. A tired professor.
It all begins with trouble.
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