Passing the barre

Trish Clark Ryan ’91Freshman year, I needed a gym class. I’d done gymnastics, but Wheaton didn’t offer that, so I picked “Modern Jazz Dance” instead. I’d never studied dance before. It was fun, and I did OK.

Sophomore year, I auditioned for the Wheaton Dance Company, and made it. The first day of rehearsal, our director, Cheryl Mrozowski, lined us up along the back of the room and led us through a ballet barre. I’d heard of barre before—it involved things like knee bends and going up on your toes. I was sure I’d be fine.

I was wrong. Barre was the worst thing that had happened to my 19-year-old body. By the end of the first week, I looked like I’d been in a car accident, with bruises all over my legs, hands and (inexplicably) torso. There was this one move—frappé it’s calledwhich in the rest of life means “yummy cold beverage,” but in ballet terms means “kick yourself repeatedly, as fast as you can, until the music ends.” I flapped and flailed. But these embarrassing times at the barre didn’t make me want to quit dance —they made me want to conquer it.  

Trish Clark Ryan ’91By senior year, I could get through a barre with minimal bodily harm. I choreographed a piece inspired by my senior thesis research on federal sentencing guidelines and standards in American prisons, and received one of the first academic credits Wheaton awarded for dance. And when Cheryl invited a guest choreographer from the Dance Theatre of Harlem to teach the Wheaton Dance Company a ballet piece, I was chosen as part of the ensemble. I was relegated to the back row within 15 minutes at our first rehearsal, but I was there.

This experience taught me that it’s really hard to learn something new and foreign, but it’s worth the effort.

Fifteen years later, I didn’t need a gym credit; I needed a new career. I’d worked as a lawyer, tried a few other things, but hadn’t found the right fit. Along the way, I’d had a series of unlikely adventures in my struggle to figure out life and love. I thought they might make a good book, a story with ups and downs and a real happy ending. And I’d always been pretty good at writing.

“Don’t even bother,” everyone told me. “Publishing is an insider’s game.” One friend said to my husband, “You need to talk to Trish. It’s not like people just write books and get them published. She should be more realistic.”

But I’d walk through bookstores and think, “Well, some people get published, why not me?”

So I went to work. I studied the publishing industry and read blogs by agents and editors. I looked at how my favorite authors constructed scenes. I wrote and rewrote, admitting embarrassing anecdotes and reliving past relationships.

After months of writing, I sent a query letter to an agent, describing my story. Earlier that week, she’d had lunch with an editor who’d said, “I’m looking for something like Eat, Pray, Love, only Jesus-ey….” That was my book.

Two years later, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: A Memoir of Faith, Hope and Happily Ever After hit bookstore shelves. On a visit to Wheaton I found a copy in the Old Town Hall bookstore—a fun treat, as so many moments in the story take place on campus.

Today, I have two published books, a novel in progress, and a speaking and consulting business helping others tell great stories. I’m grateful for what I learned at Wheaton, toughing out all those long afternoons of ballet, challenging myself to go after something that seemed impossible rather than giving up.

Trish Clark Ryan ’91, who majored in political science, has a law degree from Villanova University School of Law. She was invited to campus as an Evelyn Danzig Haas ’39 Visiting Artist this fall to teach novel writing to current students. She lives in Cambridge, Mass., and speaks at events across the country on writing, leadership and faith.