Growing up an only child, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the company of adults. That was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, only children tend to have a greatly enriched vocabulary, and our ability to navigate routine, as well as difficult social scenarios is often quite ingrained at an age much younger than that of our peers with siblings. The more negative aspect of being the only one is the essential ability required to create our own entertainment and amusement. If we wanted to have fun at play, it was often something we did with no one but “me, myself, and I”. For a future writer, that sometimes lonely existence may have had a silver lining.
From an early age, imagination and storytelling were not simply a form of play, they were the necessary traits that allowed me to exist as a healthy, happy, and relatively sane child. For whatever reason, I had a more than rigorous imagination, resulting in a knack and love for storytelling. The positive attention that garnered from adults and teachers encouraged both its growth, and my love for it.
Like most kids with an aptitude for the written word, after learning to read in elementary school I began doing so in earnest, quickly recognizing the power that was central to books, to narrative, and to the art of storytelling. It was as if the entire world opened up when I discovered that by spending some quiet time in the company of a book I could enter the realm and experience of someone else, even if only for 20 minutes. Perhaps because I was a curious child, I never found the stories that I had no personal frame of reference for difficult to relate to or understand. Though I was largely unaware of it at the time, through the connection literature offered, I was creating a solid foundation for future self awareness, and a keen ability to access empathy.
As is often the case when one is a voracious reader, there soon came a dawning awareness that, hey, maybe I might be good at this writing thing, too. After winning the third grade essay contest for outlining just why I preferred the Baroness Schraeder to that insipid guitar-toting nun in The Sound Of Music, I could see a future of literary fame and fortune tangibly within my reach. For my parents, well, it provided a more than generous clue to the fact that a daughter-in-law would most likely never be in the cards:
The Baroness was played by the lovely actress Eleanor Parker. Why did I prefer the baroness? Because she was glamorous and she was beautiful and refined. She dressed in the finest silks from Vienna. Not in drapes! She also had fabulous parties. This was told to the audience in the scene when they drive by the children in the tree. The Baroness says to Uncle Max, “I have fabulous gay parties don’t I Max”. Max agrees. I would think that the meaning of that is that Max is the kind of man who knows a good party.
Oh yes, I’m pretty sure that old Uncle Max knew a “good party” or two. After almost four decades that paragraph is still wince inducing.
When the intrusion of puberty hit with full force at the age of 12, my writing aspirations were tempered by preteen realities. At that point in my life, I was an outgoing, but in many ways shy, only child. Though you probably wouldn’t have seen that side, since I tended to mask it well. Like most of my “stuff”, I did an exacting job of not letting let it show, but the idea of sharing the deeply intimate parts of myself felt very threatening, and was something I would go to great lengths to avoid. So at 13, when Mr. Hartley, evil grade 7 sadist teacher that he was, asked me to read aloud to the class all the stories I had written that term, since they were “at an advanced high school level” (whatever that meant), I choked. Why the fear? To say grade 7 was not my best year would be an understatement. It was the year from hell that included rapidly growing 3 inches, thus temporarily losing all my previous athletic skill while tripping over my feet, getting braces, fighting what was becoming a stubborn case of acne, and trying in vain to manage the disaster that was my hair. From white blond with a slight wave in grade 6 to a dirty blond that was frizzy and didn’t move. Made all the worse through stubborn brushing trying to force it into submission. Top all that off with an obsession over not smelling like sweat, thus developing the socially marginalizing habit of sniffing my armpits whenever I was anxious. Enough said.
So, instead of feeling honoured when asked to read my work, I just wanted to die. The looming threat of having to present to the class became the sudden catalyst for my intentionally writing at “nowhere near high school level”. See Spot Run would have been a challenge. Thankfully, my parents were, by this point, familiar with my various techniques of wiggling out of things I found unpleasant and caught on to that little game pretty quick. Slowly I began writing again, though I was always cautious over sharing it and became quite adept in the more complicated patterns of avoidance when it came to reading my work.
Through my high school and undergraduate years it got a bit easier, having successfully passed through the awkward and unfortunate early teen stage into something of a quick-witted and confident extrovert. But even though I did my best academic work in creative writing courses, when it came to deeply personal writing, that was something which I rarely shared.
Becoming aware of my writing as more than just a hobby that I possessed first occurred for me in graduate school, studying community health at UCLA. The public health element of the degree challenged me to take, let’s just say, somewhat *dry* and exhaustive medical theory and make it engaging while hopefully not sleep-inducing. I found the best way I could do that was through personally specific vantage points; ones that, to my surprise, people told me they were deeply moved by. Making scientific and concrete theory, if not more understandable, a bit easier to relate to through very abstract and subjective frames. Though it would be several years and a significant career change later that I allowed myself to accept the challenge of pursuing writing as a career by enrolling in the MFA.
Saying you are a writer is one thing, actually believing it in a deeper, self-defining way is another story entirely. As any writer will tell you, adopting the intensely loaded and self-descriptive term “writer” is a long, complicated process, intimately tied up in our own self-perception and confidence. Painful introspection is, sadly, the curse of the writer.
While there is no clear line that defines when naming oneself as a writer is something one does sans justifications, I think we all have moments when we know something has changed. For some, it’s their first final draft of a manuscript. For others, it’s their first paid job, or publication in an esteemed literary journal. Or, as it was in my case, it may be when someone we respect offers us praise.
In 2007 I had written a book review of Joan Didion’s The Year Of Magical Thinking for my personal blog. In those heydays of blogging I had developed quite an extensive following, and articles would often generate many comments. As is still the case today, not all feedback was supportive; there were a fair amount of trolls, to be sure. The specific comment that generated my response was a snarky dismissal of Joan Didion, her book, and her skill as a writer, made through a most disingenuous characterization of her description of mental illness as shallow and surface. For whatever reason, it got the better of me and I responded with the following:
Obviously not a Joan fan, are you? While I admit Didion may not be the perfect brew for absolutely everyone, I need to say that in your positioning of that passage, of which I am well aware, you come across as rather transparent, even if I am to generously assume you understood her inference correctly.
Your glaring error becomes apparent while attempting to describe and minimize Didion’s “paradigm shift in consciousness”, (which you inaccurately present as a quote), as being due to the supposed misstep of the help in not hanging the spring drapes in a timely manner. In doing so you appear rather oblivious to the tender nuance present in Miss Didion’s failure to notice for a whole month, that which a year previous she had taken great pride in. Her “shift of consciousness”, then, was not the result of a privileged inconvenience, but instead, a sudden rush of deeply personal insight around just how the stranglehold of clinical depression had robbed her of herself.
He responded with an expected level of incredulity, one that I simply ignored. It wasn’t until a day later that a professor from my MFA program whom I had great respect for, one who was not known for generous offers of praise, responded with a comment on my somewhat pedantic rant:
I would add an opinion here but I think you expertly said all that was required. Excellent work.
Those brief, seemingly inconsequential words, are, years later, oddly one of the most memorable responses to my work I have ever received. As such, they place one of many defining marks on the weird, disjointed journey to accepting and naming myself as a writer.
Today, in 2017, eight years out of my MFA and having had some success navigating the choppy and turbulent waters of the publishing world, I have a more holistic view of how we come to see ourselves as writers. While I still believe that introspection and the discipline of ruthless honesty are important, that whole existential smack down we do to ourselves is largely unnecessary. Ironically, it keeps us from what should be our job: honing our craft and gaining wisdom from experience. Today, I would encourage new writers to pay heed to author Natalie Goldberg’s elegantly simple definition of who a writer is:
A writer is someone who writes, and is nourished through the process.