Last night I walked out of a horror movie, the first time I have walked out of a movie in decades, and sat in the lobby and read a book instead, waiting for my friends. The moment that made me leave was when the little boy looked up at his sister and said, “if Mom is crazy, does that mean we’re crazy, too?” The girl said no, confidently– or maybe not confidently, but confidently enough for the boy. The two of them set off to kill someone. And in that moment, the movie wasn’t entertaining anymore, because the question felt dark and true. And I thought, if you’re going to take on a question like that, please do it seriously, so I can find answers.
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?