A long time ago I thought there would be a moment when I felt like a writer. Not unlike the moment when I would feel like a parent, or an adult, or, in a slightly different category, clear. I had very noisy voices in my head back then, luckily more punishing than they feel at the moment, voices that said, “if you were a real writer, you wouldn’t have so much trouble getting to the table.” Or: “Real writers don’t avoid the task of writing.” “Real writers don’t wonder what to write about.” Once, in the middle of that decades long rant, I finally admitted l don’t feel like a writer at all. I find it incredibly difficult to come up with ideas, my writing habits are bad, and my self-esteem is often in the toilet. If I had to take the “Are You a REAL Writer?” quiz I would flunk instantly. Wanting to be a writer and not having any actual ideas is like wanting to be a nurse because you like the hat. But I’m still trying. In the end, if proof is required, perhaps that’s enough.
I was an extremely good student, which in many ways is terrible for writing. I spent my entire time in grade school, and then high school, and college, learning how to read and analyze great writing, and, worse, learning how to follow rules– rules of punctuation, structure and rhetoric. Not surprisingly, my love of writing, which was strong in childhood, gradually faded away. Some time after college I read Silences, by Tillie Olsen, which is about all the ways that we (especially women, people of color and people without resources) lose our voices. I was working as a secretary at the time, and I would sit in the stairwell during my lunch hour reading Silences and crying. It had never occurred to me that writers are made, not born, or that anybody with the dream of writing had a right to pursue it. Having had that revelation, I started writing and was almost immediately paralyzed. My years of study had left me adept at identifying bad writing, intimidated by good writing and completely without strategies for invention. Many writers– writers with better imagination or more courage– develop habits of play instinctively. I had to start from scratch, teaching myself to brainstorm, to build and rebuild stories, to fail and to dream. Cultivating those habits has been time-consuming and often frustrating. Which begs the question– why do we go to school? How could I have spent so much time there and learned so little?
I have been reading Before I Fall. The protagonist is a mean girl. It turns out I like her. I like the gaps between the way she describes herself— funky, cool, having a good time— and what is probably true. The people who look at her, not in admiration, as she imagines, but disgust. The shiver of disgust she herself feels when her popular, slobbery boyfriend kisses her and leaves saliva all over her chin. The way she ignores all the clues that she is not who she thinks, and clings to the shiny version she prefers. Part of the reason I can forgive her is that she’s dead, which means she has already gotten the worst possible punishment. I don’t need to punish her, too. But also, I have hope—why start with somebody so awful unless change is coming? I keep reading to find out: when will she wake up to the truth about her former life? I learn that it’s not just character that holds my attention, but the promise of transformation. This young woman who, in spite of her flaws, makes poetic observations about the world around her— a watery sun spreading over the sky like spilled milk, the pin pricks of cold rain on the back of her hand. Maybe she can be saved.
My internal editor is a mean drunk. Catch her on a good day and she can be pretty helpful– a sharp mind, high standards. On a good day, she pushes my writing to a better place. But when she’s on a bender, she can destroy me, for no reason. Impatient with everything, incapable of hope. Punishing tiny missteps. Indifferent to signs of life. She hurls insults: why are you still writing? Why even bother to try? I’m thinking of bringing her to a twelve-step meeting. Teach her to take deep breaths, and be a little bit nicer to both of us.