The Other Side of Fear

by Marie-Capucine Pineau-Valencienne | 1/23/19 2:25am

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My mother always said that you need darkness in order to fully appreciate light. At 10, 13, 15, even at 18, I did not like this analogy. I did not want any darkness to infiltrate my shining future, my glittery dreams of a fabulous college life and plans of a successful career thereafter. I did not understand that sometimes happiness is not what we imagined it to be. Sometimes it happens not in ways that we want, but in ways we need.

At 18 I went to drama school. I wanted to follow my dreams. While all my friends were off to university, I was preparing for a very different kind of adventure: a gap year in New York City at a dramatic arts conservatory. Drama school taught me many things. I learned about self-reliance, trust and never being afraid to try, no matter the outcome. Most importantly though, I learned that I didn’t want to be an actress, but that I wanted to tell stories in a different way. And it was Dartmouth that showed me how.

I’ve wanted to come to Dartmouth ever since I was a child. When I transferred at the beginning of my sophomore year, I was looking for a place that would challenge me academically, for a community of likeminded students and for opportunities beyond the classroom. But what I have found is much greater. At Dartmouth I have found a place I can call home, and even more importantly, I have found myself.

Dartmouth has not been easy. But the best things never are. My mother taught me that. And my God, has it been worth it. Coming to Dartmouth from the American University of Paris challenged me in ways I had never experienced prior. Dartmouth set a new bar for me to strive for. Here, my professors ask me to see, to consider, to question — they ask me to think. One of the most meaningful academic experiences at Dartmouth has been discovering myself as a writer. The school has enabled me to kindle a passion, to leap head first into something I had cast aside­ — something I was a bit afraid to encourage and very afraid to showcase. I have always been inclined to write, academically and personally, but it was at Dartmouth that I have been able to nurture my passion for creative writing. Here, I have been given the tools (and strength) to learn and to expose my work, and in turn myself.

I knew I wanted to write for The Dartmouth before I even stepped foot on campus. I wanted to be part of the paper before I even knew I wanted to write. The Dartmouth is where I got to know myself as I writer, where I met small bits and pieces of the person I would become. It was there that I realized I loved to tell stories, even little ones hidden amid interviews and information, written in between the lines. 

My interest in writing soon overflowed into my academic life. In my Victorian literature class sophomore fall, our professor gave the class two options for our final assignment: a traditional research paper or writing an original short story imitating the style of one of the authors we read. In a leap of faith I chose the latter, and there the seed of creative writing was planted in my mind. I watered that seed during my sophomore summer taking an introductory creative nonfiction course. In nonfiction, my passion bloomed. The class English 80, “Writing and Reading Creative Nonfiction” (now Creative Writing 10), was one of the most influential and important passages of my university career, and by extension my life. It was there that I discovered the depth of my passion for storytelling, for words. It was there that I fell in love with Joan Didion. It was there that I told stories that were true — but this time they were not hidden between the lines. It was there that I fully grasped the importance of stories, of writers and that I could be one too, one day. And it was there that I learned that I could tell my own. 

It wasn’t long before I decided to pursue a concentration in creative writing within my English major. I began scouring through the English department course listings, where I found one of the most challenging classes I would take. In intermediate nonfiction I learned how to investigate, to put myself in someone else’s shoes. I learned how to tell their story, while also telling my own. This class required me to talk to real people and discover real stories. I was scared at first. Very scared, actually. But overcoming my discomfort ultimately made me a better writer.

Every creative writing class I have taken throughout my collegiate career has taught me something different. Just when I think I know how and what to do, I am humbled by my peers and challenged by my professors to do more, better my craft and go the extra mile. Creative writing classes are where I recognize the girl I was before, full of life and fear. The girl who went to traveling boarding school, moved to New York City at 18 and Paris at 19. I am still full of life, excited and hungry and passionate, but now I understand the value of that fear. That darkness is there for a reason. That my mother was right. As she always is. 

There are many things I wish I could say to myself at the beginning of it all, to the girl fresh to Dartmouth, barely younger, but miles away from me now. I would tell her to listen carefully and see things clearly. I would tell her, you’ll go to a performance sophomore winter and you will be very uncomfortable and you will leave before it’s over. But before that, there will be an empty stage and souls being undressed right there and a girl will say, “I love Dartmouth. But let us not be afraid to criticize it, because in loving it, let us aim to make it better.” You’ll wince at these words and you won’t understand but they will echo in your ears for years to come. I can’t remember the girl’s face, there is a blurriness attached to a body and a stage, but I do remember her words. Her voice. You will love it here too, I would say to myself, but in loving it aim to make it better. Nothing is perfect and you’ll understand that here. Nothing is perfect, even a dream that comes true.

I’m getting ready to leave undergraduate life behind, and I am scared. But there is comfort in fear. The fear of the unknown, the excitement of standing on the precipice of change, toes almost scraping the edge, is sweet, almost sublime. I am reassured in knowing that I will be challenged, that I will be pushed in ways I have yet to experience, that it will be hard, that there will be some darkness. Because that is how I will come to appreciate new light. As I reflect on this time in my life, I am thankful. I know what is waiting for me on the other side of fear. Myself. 

Pineau-Valencienne is a former member of The Dartmouth Senior Staff.