As I approached consulting, I was worried—not surprisingly—that I couldn’t do the job. I worried for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones was noise. More specifically, it was voices. Ambient voices are to my brain what an electromagnetic pulse is to the Starship Enterprise: They are a power drain. They cause total mechanical shut-down. There must be others who have this problem, but I’ll relate some background, for comprehension’s sake.
I come from a large, loud, emotionally incompetent family. My parents were hippies. Religious hippies. Grumpy hippies (I’m looking at you, Dad). They fled California in the late 1960s and hiked around continental Europe carrying their backpacks, a tin campfire pot, some dirty laundry, and not much else. Dad was AWOL from the Army at the time—need I mention?—so he did four months in a German stockade after the excursion. Eventually they returned to the States, got a Volkswagen bus, some road maps, a cooking stove, and, sooner or later, six bewildered and codependent offspring.
I was the last of these offspring.
The house I grew up in was rough on the surface—raucous and busy. But it was quiet at heart, even melancholy. When there weren’t angry words and baseless insults flying around, there were a lot of heavy moods and empty gazing. If you talked freely you were setting yourself up for something. You watched what you said.
So I was an anxious kid, and got stressed easily. My ‘bedroom’ was actually the communal hallway off the living room (small house), so when I got stressed I hid under the kitchen table. Someone asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to? I hid under the kitchen table. Someone laughed and I couldn’t figure out why? I hid under the table. Someone offered me a choice for lunch and I couldn’t decide? Hid under the table.
I spent a lot of time under there.
As I got older, I think I reasoned that my lasting social anxieties existed because of my large, loud, emotionally incompetent family. I then reasoned that I could avoid stress if I avoided people, social gatherings, and noisy, chatty places.
This is where the writing center comes back in.
The first time I sat in on a consultation in our writing center, I was pretty sure I’d signed my own death warrant. There were no walls in the center—only cubicle dividers. There was no privacy—I could hear every word being said in practically every consultation. I couldn’t listen to the consultant I was sitting with, couldn’t listen to the student. I was totally distracted. I went home that day thinking about my family, thinking about noise—thinking about trying to communicate or cogitate or make decisions with everyone talking at once, and I got depressed.
There’s something sort of magical about the writing center, though—about consulting. I’m not confident, and never have been. I’m not straightforward, I’m not decisive, and I’m certainly not tactful. These are deficiencies that silenced me in the past, made me afraid to speak, turned me into a writer—a writer strictly, with no room for dialogue. But it’s different at the writing center. When I go into that (minimally private) cubicle with another writer—with someone who’s written something or must write something—I turn into a conversation machine. It’s a bit of a show, of course, and it may always be a show, but if nothing else I am totally focused on the writer and the work in front of me. It’s a rare and beautiful focus. The voices—those ambient entities that melt my brain and make me want to crawl under a table?—they disappear. It’s almost surreal, the way the voices disappear.
So it’s trite, maybe, but true: My job at the writing center is teaching me how to make quiet out of chaos.
And P.S. to my fellow Boise State consultants: I totally love you guys, and I don’t want you or your voices to disappear. In this post ‘voices’ refers to the general ‘hum’ of the center—a hum that I am actually growing to love.