Grace Klaris

Breaking Bread

It’s difficult to put into words what this year in TSR has meant to me. What had started as a “class I am going to shop for a week” turned into one of the most meaningful and enriching experiences I have had at Stanford.

I remember walking into Sue’s office in the beginning of the year to inquire about the program. I was already running late because despite how many times I walk through that Biology building, I refuse to commit any of its geography to memory and thus become inevitably lost. After searching all of Herrin (not to be confused with Herrin Laboratory), I finally found myself outside of Sue’s office. As many other pre-med students can relate to, walking into a Biology professor’s office typically evokes memories of stressful office hours and midterm review sessions. Needless to say, I was not calm.

I sat down in front of Sue and started rambling about how I wanted to do something meaningful in my last year at Stanford, but I didn’t think that a thesis would capture what I wanted to say and that I had just come off this experience in India and had some data form interviews and a bunch of photos so maybe I could write short stories or do a photo essay or …

“Grace,” Sue said.

I took a breath and looked up.

“I think TSR would be a great fit for you.”

My fate was sealed.

In my first few weeks of TSR, I was skeptical. As someone who knew very few other students in the class and who also wasn’t entirely accustomed to spending class time playing games and sitting under the table, I struggled to find my place. Very quickly, however, I looked forward to those afternoons as a welcomed respite from other, dryer classes. I also realized that there was meaning behind the madness.

It’s easy to look at some of the things we do in TSR with a critical eye—from afar, it can appear to be a rather silly affair. But when you look closely, you’ll find that we are learning far more in those games than we can in any lecture. We are learning to let go of judgment, to open ourselves up to creativity, to not be so damn serious all the time, to laugh more, cry more, just downright feel more than we ever allow ourselves to be as Stanford students. I thank TSR for teaching me how to let down my guard.

Sometime earlier in childhood than I would like to admit, I stopped thinking of myself as creative. Perhaps it was because my stick figure drawings paled in comparison to other girls’ more elaborate watercolor paintings or that I always shied away from more imaginative games and activities, but despite the fact that I played piano and loved to write, I never defined myself as “creative.”

This refusal to see myself as creative was amplified when I fell in love with medicine. I still enjoyed my English classes as much as Science ones, but it was never my primary focus. At Stanford, it only got worse. The division between “technies” and “fuzzies” created an even greater barrier of entry into the arts. As my schedule filled up with Physics and Chemistry and GER requirements, I was pushed farther and farther from any realm of creativity.

So, when I joined TSR and was thrust into the terrifying world of full-force creativity, I was paralyzed. I wasn’t comfortable with free-writing and minimal structure and all of these things that are banned from the world of Science. Like losing the ability to speak a foreign language, I had lost the ability to be creative. Or at least I thought I had.

But as everyone who has learned a second language can attest to, you never fully lose the words; you just temporarily misplace them. When I started thinking about what I wanted to do for my yearlong project, I thought back to why I had fallen in love with writing in the first place. I thought back to the day when my first grade teacher, Ms. Watson, had given me my first journal. It was a few days after my dad had passed away and she had come to visit me at our apartment. I was sitting on the stairs and she sat down next to me. It was a green leather-bound journal with wide-spaced lines.

She told me to jot down whatever I was feeling and that it didn’t have to make sense. I suppose this is my earliest memory of free writing. That night, I wrote a letter to my dad because it was the only person I wanted to talk to. “Dear Dad…” I began. Since then, I have kept numerous journals, and every one is filled with entries addressed to my father. It has been the most important way in which I have preserved my relationship with him. It has allowed me to cope with his death in ways that I cannot do through talking.

Through journaling, I learned to express my feelings and parse through my thoughts in a much more cohesive way. As a result, I became more comfortable writing than I did speaking. Nevertheless, I viewed writing as a hobby rather than something I should do seriously. TSR changed that.

When I began writing for my final project, I slipped right back into that feeling I had when I wrote in my journal. I started putting off my other work to write. I stayed up late pounding away at my laptop, letting the words pour out of me. I started seeing myself as a Scientist and a writer, and I loved being able to find my place as both.

Throughout the year, I found my voice as a writer much more seriously than I ever had before. Previously, most of my writing had been limited to essays in English class or for college applications. I had never written a creative piece longer than five or so pages, so the thought of writing an entire memoir seemed insurmountable. As a result, I started by writing short vignettes—a page or two max. Although some of these pieces remained relatively unchanged in the final draft of my memoir, most of them were expanded into much larger pieces. During workshop, I realized that I was skidding over details of the stories.

Because I was so accustomed to writing essays with short word maximums, I was subconsciously restricting myself here as well. Working with Ingrid and Andrew on my writing, I realized I had to dig much deeper. In one scene alone, I could fill two or three pages with specific details and dialogue and all of the things that are buried deep in my memory. And beyond my history of writing 350 word college essays, I also realized there was another reason for my pithiness.

In order to capture the full essence of any story, you have to uncover things of your past that you may not way to find. The reason why I was making these stories so short was because I didn’t want to think about all of the details. Some of them were too hard to face. I remember one meeting about my writing, where Andrew was trying to help me craft a scene with my brother. It was the one about him leaving for boarding school and saying goodbye to him in our apartment.

I had nearly finished the story, but I couldn’t figure out the dialogue. It was only a few lines, but I had complete writer’s block. I had sat at my desk for hours trying to find the perfect words to capture everything I was feeling in that moment—the sense of profound loss and sadness for losing my older brother. I thought about something Ingrid had said when she visited class a few weeks earlier.

“In order to truly capture the nuances of any scene, you just have to trace the emotions exactly as they happened,” she told the class.

After talking to Andrew, I returned to my room to finish the scene. Rather than start writing immediately, I sat back and closed my eyes. I thought more about that moment of saying goodbye than I ever had before. I thought about standing there with him and how, exactly, I had felt. I thought about what he would say as a 14 year old and how I would respond.

When I finally put my hands to the keys, I started to cry. It was the first time during the entire year of working on this piece that I had actually broken down while writing, and I couldn’t stop. I buried my face in my hands and continued to sob. The reason I hadn’t been able to write this scene is because it was still just as raw as when it happened over ten years ago.

At the onset of this piece, I wasn’t even thinking about my brother. I had gone in with a fairly limited idea of what I wanted to write about. It was going to be about my trip to India sprinkled with some childhood memories where I felt like an outsider. Most of those consisted of me at school, with my extended family, or when I was dealing with losing my father. My relationship with my brother wasn’t on my mind.

What I learned this year, as my project changed and evolved and moved in all sorts of directions, is that sometimes you really do just have to let go. I had to free myself of the constraints I had made for myself and allow the emotions to drive the project. When I was finally able to release myself from all of the things I “expected” to get out of the project, the writing flowed much more naturally.

In doing so, the piece became much stronger. I cannot thank Andrew and Ingrid enough for pushing me to grow as a writer and for guiding the project every step of the way. They were both instrumental in helping me bring the piece to completion.

Beyond improving my craft as a writer, TSR gave me something much bigger. It served as a catalyst for dealing with many emotionally charged memories like the one I mentioned above with my brother. As I said, many of the memories I wrote about are ones that I had not thought about in years. Throughout the process of writing, I was forced to confront many emotions from my childhood that I had never dealt with.

Just last week, I finally mustered up the courage to send my piece to my brother, Alex. I sent him a long message explaining that there was a lot of personal material in the memoir about him but that I wanted him to read it. After a few days, he replied. He sent me a long and touching e-mail about how much the piece had meant to him and how sorry he was for not being as caring as he could have been as a brother. He confided in me things about our childhood that he had never shared before and expressed feelings I never knew he had.

It was the most meaningful letter I have ever received from him. Ultimately, this memoir served as a catalyst in mending my relationship with my brother, and for that I am forever grateful. It has become something so much more powerful in my life than a senior project or capstone. It changed my relationship with my family, with how I see myself, and with how I want to live my life after Stanford. This is something I could have never have imagined in September.

Another aspect of TSR that I am extremely thankful for is for exposing me to various artists and other modes of living. The guest speakers we had have been surprisingly influential in how I view graduation and this next chapter in my life. Perhaps it is because I am mainly used to hearing talks from doctors and other healthcare professionals, but it was refreshing and inspiring to listen to writers and filmmakers and other creative individuals talk about their lives.

During one of our recent “All-Hands” meeting, a screenwriter came to talk to us about his career. One thing he said that resonated with me was about how he had chosen his career based on what had made him happiest in childhood. He explained that when he was at boarding school, he used to put on sketches with a group of friends and that he wanted to essentially do that for the rest of his life.

It may sound like an oversimplified philosophy or just another way of saying, “Do what you love,” but I think he was getting at something else. He was getting at the fact that we so often do things just because they are what we are supposed to do rather than what we really want to. We become automated into thinking that certain paths are the only ones in life and don’t even take a moment to see what else is out there.

As someone who has been on a fairly set path from a young age, this talk shook me in a way that other hadn’t in the past. Despite my love for writing, I had never allowed myself to consider it as anything but a hobby. Because of the environment and the social pressure to follow what everyone else seems to be doing, it, choosing a career in the arts becomes less and less of an acceptable route. At this point in time, I am still passionate about medicine and want to continue pursuing it. However, I am now equally as committed to incorporating writing into whatever profession I end up doing.

TSR didn’t just force me to think creatively about the project I was working on this year. It forced me to think creatively about the life I want to live. As I prepare to graduate Stanford, I am trying to think critically about how to incorporate art into the core of my career rather than an afterthought. TSR, more than any class or lecture I’ve attended, has pushed me to create my own path rather than follow the one of least resistance.

Moreover, the class itself provided an unparalleled support system and source of inspiration that I am extremely thankful for. Although I was nervous at first to among students I hardly knew, I quickly realized what an extraordinary group of individuals it was. Everyone had such a wide range of interests and talents, and their projects were a reflection of this diversity. Each week in workshop, I relished the opportunity to see what others were creating. The TSR class also provided me an outlet from my daily life that I didn’t fully appreciate until the end.

At Stanford, it’s very easy to get caught up in the monotony of the same social scene you’ve been a part of for years and never step outside your comfort zone. Looking back on this year, I cannot imagine not having the opportunity to meet all of the individuals that comprised our class. Because we are all Science students with a passion for art, there is a powerful common denominator between us. TSR brings together students that may have never worked together before but who share something so strong. That is something special.

Another aspect of TSR that I hadn’t predicted would be so important to me was the reception. I had been so focused on finishing the piece that I hadn’t thought much about the exhibition. However, as the day approached, I began to understand the gravity of this final moment. Although the physical binding of my piece provided a certain sense of completion, it really wasn’t until the TSR reception that I felt it was finished.

Although I was initially hesitant to invite friends and advisors, I realized that this would be just as meaningful for them as it would be to me. As the day approached, I became increasingly more nervous about the reading. I usually don’t have a problem reading in public, but there was something about reading from this piece that rattled me. In workshop throughout the year, I had grown accustomed to becoming vulnerable in front of my TSR classmates, and they had grown accustomed to hearing about this part of my life. Although I have shared many the sentiments in my memoir with close friends, there are many I have kept reserved. To share those memories with the audience would be to expose myself in a way I didn’t normally do, at least not in public.

Now that I have a chance to reflect and think about what that moment meant—to stand at the podium and read my story in front of my friends and close advisors—I realize what this project and TSR really meant to me. It meant finally becoming comfortable with who I am and where I came from. For that, I owe everthing.