Filling Empty Spaces, by Kelly Shea

Kelly Shea is the kind of woman that I’d want to have as a daughter. She is this wonderfully bright, eclectic, frolicky, and geeky young woman who has the work ethic of a lion that’s masked by an unusual quietness.

She is brilliantly quirky, full of the complexities of human-ness that give her a depth far beyond what you’d expect. And the way she uses her words is simply gorgeous. I have fallen in love, over and over, with the ways in which she brings the world to life on the page.

You’ll have the chance to experience that in Kelly’s essay “Filling Empty Spaces,” a rumination on her journey to break free of the expectations she felt upon her. This isn’t a story that comes complete with a wrapped, happy ending. This is the story of a journey.

In that sense, this is the most invictus of the Invictus stories.

For me, that’s the most shocking revelation of this whole project.

***

“My little sorority girl. I’ll run her out first,” I remember thinking as this young, doe-eyed girl sat quietly in the front of my Introduction to Magazine writing class. “She’s not even going to last through the first week.”

She had the overly passive look of someone who needed acceptance, not someone willing to rip her guts out and spill them on the page for me to eviscerate while learning the basic building blocks of storytelling. I was certain I’d be doing her a favor by pushing her out the door.

Plus, she was a design student. Another strike against her in my book. Some of my worst writing (in terms of storytelling) students come from the visual fields.

This isn’t a knock on them. The visual skills needed to design and the linear skills needed to tell stories aren’t related. They require the brain to operate and synthesize information differently. Those differences rarely mesh within one person. You are either left-handed or right-handed. You like John or you like Paul. (For the kids: that’s a Beatle’s reference.) You love pictures or you love words.

There was nothing in my early interactions with Kelly that led me to imagine that she would be one of those rare, exceptional talents who could excel at both.

Her first pieces were fluffy, full of the light-hearted pabulum that did little to convince me that she had the emotional depth needed for this line of work. You can’t write honestly if you’re concerned with what people will think of you. You can’t write powerfully if you’re not willing to put the time and effort into crafting the words in a linear fashion.

I pressed on with my critiques, battering Kelly with long notes about her inability to get serious about her writing and her lack of commitment to telling the story.

Like the others on this project, she marched along, never letting my critiques slow her down.

***

The one aspect of her writing that intrigued me, though, was her ability to string phrases together in remarkably visual ways. I don’t know if it was her training as a designer or if that’s simply the way that she thinks, but she grasped the idea of visual scenes sooner than most. Then she spun those scenes – on occasion – with phrases that would stop me.

With each subsequent draft of her work, I would see more of these appear. That gave me hope. She was a writer who made her work better in the editing process.

***

Despite all of this, I expected Kelly to turn down the Invictus project. You’re either a designer or a writer. You aren’t both. Invictus was a writing project, and I knew Jenn — my colleague and the head of the design sequence in the journalism department — had big projects lined up for Kelly. No way was this young woman going to join us at my house two Saturdays a month for an academic year.

All of which should tell you exactly how very good I am at predicting the future successes of my students.
Throughout this process, I’ve come to rely upon Kelly nearly as much I have on David Ake, the student editor on the project. Kelly’s designs – and the entire book was designed by her, save for the cover which she did with her boyfriend Harry – have ignited a fire within the group. Each time she’d deliver one of the essays, my Twitter would explode with activity. It’s fair to say without Kelly, there would be no book.

The words, though, didn’t come so easily. Several times she considered just designing the book. (That was never going to happen.) The writing was too much for her. It was hard, personal, and raw. She couldn’t bring herself to write the story.

Then, something changed. The words, the ones she’s struggled with so mightily this year,  turned. That pretense – the one of acceptance I saw from her two years before –  dropped away and she tore away the scabs of her youth and laid bare everything — everything..

As I read her story for the last time, I couldn’t contain myself. I was sitting under trees as the sun set, reading and weeping. I’d read her story before, but I hadn’t read this story. I wanted the world to read her words immediately. I tweeted my favorite phrases as I read them. I couldn’t contain myself.

***

Today, Kelly is in Michigan working on The Circle of Blue, an important project chronicling the the fresh water crisis on the planet. She’s designing mostly, but she’s writing more as well. I keep up with her as much as possible, but – as I told her yesterday – she’s an adult now and while I’m much older than her, there’s not much advice I have left to give.

She’s found her voice. She’s pierced through the fears that plague young writers. She’s fearlessly peeled back the emotions of her life, her friends, and her family, and laid them on the page for everyone to read.

There is nothing more you can ask of a writer. And she is a writer.