To Live a Meaningful Life
By Jess Walter, Writer-in-Residence
The journal arrived in the mail last May, at the end of my term as writer-in-residence at Whitworth.
The cover art features a familiar intersection with two road signs, DO NOT ENTER and ONE WAY, signs subtly and comically at odds with one another. (Do not enter, but if you must . . . could you, maybe, you know, go this way?) Just past the signs, what looks like the North Spokane Y is an unfocused blur, the world beyond a mystery.
It's a terrific image for what's inside – the writing of 11 smart, searching students from Nicole Sheets' EL 444 Autobiographical Writing class. That image asks you to remember what it's like to be 21 or 22, on the verge of embarking on your post-college life, staring out at a blurry, contradictory world.
I thought of that journal, and of my time at Whitworth, recently, as I drove my 18-year-old daughter to Oregon to begin her college career. It's a proud, wistful moment, dropping your kid off at school. But as a parent, I tend to indulge in one of two fallacies at such moments: 1) I assume that my kids' experiences will be exactly like mine (Put down the beer bong!), or 2) I assume my kids' experiences will be nothing like mine. (I don't know what Tinder is, but stay off it!)
During my visit to Whitworth – speaking on campus, meeting faculty and administrators, working with writers in the classes of professors Thomas Caraway and Nicole Sheets, eating pizza with students in George's Place – I was reminded that, behind those implacable faces, what college students want is as evergreen as those Whitworth pines.
It's simply this: to live a meaningful life.
In this way, the students I met reminded me of the people I most admired when I was in college – perceptive, inquisitive, compassionate. But they also seemed more mature and self-aware than the people I remember from college – than the self I remember. They were more certain of their place in the world, even if that world is more blurry, more uncertain.
We spend a lot of time debating higher education. The cost of college has gone up more than 500 percent in the past 30 years, contributing to a scandalous inequality in America. Meanwhile, the handwringing over what a university should entail has only intensified. What is college: classical education or career preparation? On the same day you might read an op-ed piece arguing that American universities are too precious and esoteric, another will argue that proud institutions are pandering to business and consumer interests.
In the end, all that consternation falls away, though, and the big question is this: What kind of adult human beings are we making behind the brick and ivy?
That's what I loved about reading the EL 444 poems, stories and essays. I recalled the students behind this work, the human beings behind their words.
Here are students poetically exploring dreams and confronting the paradox of human nature:
Everything about me is present.
Inhaling every part of me that is both good and bad
even though I would rather the bad not be there.
It wouldn't be true if it were any other way. (Terra Ojeda)
– writing fiction grappling with the future of mankind –
They're losing touch. They're forgetting – everything humanity was and everything it could be. (Henry Stelter)
– using something as unlikely as fan fiction to question originality and courage in art –
Something stops me from sharing the passion and enthusiasm I have … making me hide a part of who I am. (Bekah Bresee)
– and crafting a lyrical essay about the effects of time (and hubris) on a military installation –
At the age of eight, I was still under the impression that battles had been won and lost here, that the dead walked the paths with us … Nature is fighting the battle now, and the bunkers are losing. (Kyler Lacey)
Piece by piece, what emerges from this journal is a lovely report from a remote outpost: This was life at Whitworth University, in Spokane, Washington, in the year 2015.
The Ponderosa Pine is known to be quite playful, and fills its days with a gentle oscillation that sprinkles the ground with needles and pinecones. This is how trees speak with one another – not with utterances, but through movement … Swaying with ardent passion, the trees look like Shakers during worship, bowing at the altar of a higher power. (Nick Avery)
A unique sense of place cuts across essays about cultural fascinations.
The purpose of Batman isn't just to fight crime. It's to remind us that humans can be extraordinary … Spokane is far different from Gotham. It requires a different Batman. (Hailee Meyers)
And it informs pieces that comically remind us that some experiences are universal.
Welcome to the family; don't you worry, you only have to deal with these people for the rest of your life. (Catherine Tucker)
I could even craft a collection of witty, intelligent aphorisms from these poems and stories and essays, a guide to a smart, healthy life:
Trouble's no fun if you don't share it with someone. (John Reed)
I'd like to tell you
that your hair will soar
with the wind in gentle rhythms
but most likely it will end up
stuck in your eye. (Holli Stienmetz)
Like anything else in this world, coffee can be mistaken for identity if you love it with too much ardor. (Alyssa Olds)
I arrived at Whitworth University in the spring of 2015 flush with my own concerns and expectations, with old ideas about the place. I'd just come off a busy stretch and sometimes had trouble slowing down. Yet every time I pulled onto that beautiful campus – book-bagged students plying the trails and roads – I found myself instantly reflective. I've lived in Spokane my entire life, and some of the best people I know – alumni, professors, writers – are part of the Whitworth community. I've had great readings there, delivered lectures, played pickup basketball.
But sometimes we take the most familiar things for granted. We stop seeing them for what they are, or we don't always see how they change and grow.
A quick story: Back in 1982, at my high school college night, I met a representative from what was then Whitworth College. I was instantly charmed, and I brought home a brochure, but my dad, who worked at Kaiser Aluminum and had three kids to put through college, said private school was too expensive. My high school counselor agreed: as a "B" student from a lower middle-class family, I couldn't expect much in the way of scholarships. The message was for me was clear: Private college isn't for people like you.
I ended up to a great state school, Eastern Washington University. The day I drove myself to Eastern was the first time I'd ever seen a four-year college.
Since then, as a writer, I have lectured or been the visiting writer at dozens of prestigious colleges, including Ivy League schools so exclusive that my best chance of getting in would have been as a custodian. I keep a handy chip on my shoulder for such experiences.
But last spring, at Whitworth, my old class-warrior chip was the first thing I abandoned. I couldn't have felt more welcomed, more at home. I met first-generation college students, students on scholarship, students from small towns that make Spokane seem like Paris. (Okay, maybe not Paris.) I met students who reminded me of the person I was, and students I would love my children to know. It's great seeing Whitworth all grown up: sophisticated, welcoming, and building all of those great human beings. Of course, there's nothing better than having your expectations exceeded. In fact, there's a poem in the 444 journal about that too, by Chris MacMurray, and it only seems right to give one of those talented young writers the last word:
The most beautiful things
are those that find us
when we least expect to be found.
Jess Walter, who served as a writer-in-residence during spring semester 2015, is the author of six novels, a collection of short stories, and a nonfiction book. His books have been published in 26 countries and translated into 28 languages, and he is a former National Book Award finalist.