I have ever been the solitary child.
Most of you played sports and climbed trees; you learned to ride a bike and had slumber parties. I read books and put together jigsaw puzzles. I made Transformers battle each other for control of the humidifier. I wandered the outskirts of the playground, kicking at piles of snow or blowing dandelion seeds over the grass, telling myself stories about ninjas.
You cried and skinned your knees and broke bones and everything else that involved grappling head-on with messy reality. I avoided it as much as I could.
I cleaned up messy reality: I wrote. I created worlds to inhabit. I augmented reality with magic, with new technology, with fantasy characters. I wrote as if I had discovered an endless reservoir of secrets the world kept from everyone else.
Writing has ever been my escape. I have used it to deal with emotion, and to court women. I have used it to break rules. Now, when I have an excess of rules and regulations, when I have too many pedestrian responsibilities and not enough money, when I am full of love for a woman and disgust for the state of my country, I never find any time to write. It seems I cannot reserve a place for the one thing that has given me happiness and solace longer than anything, or anyone, else.
This is troubling to me. And so, I approach the problem the only way I know how: by writing about it.
“Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.”
— Joseph Conrad
The first story I remember writing was about a race between my pet gerbils, Hobbes and Twinkie. This was non-fiction, too — I placed a straight road of playing cards across my rust-orange carpet, plopped the black Twinkie at the beginning of one and the caramel Hobbes at the other, and watched what happened. I wrote the story from the point of view of an announcer: gregarious, vibrant, confident.
I was none of those things. It occurred to me, on however rudimentary a level, that this writing thing was a fantastic way to circumvent the unfortunate problems of reality.
The first story I ever really shared with anyone else was the beginning chapters of an epic (or the start of a project doomed to be left unfinished, like a Coleridge opium dream) about me and my sixth grade friends, each one of us discovering the powers of a video game character. Since I found writing “he said” and “she said” after every line of dialogue (and I had a lot of dialogue — very conversational style) to be far too much work, I decided to simply write the name of the character before the quote.
I signified this, during my dinner-table reading for my parents and grandma, by holding up one finger for the first character, and two for the second.
Ah, simpler times. I was writing for myself; who needed grammar? That story reached forty pages, front and back. When I received a computer (an Apple IIGS, if that gives you any idea how long I’ve been writing), I began writing stories that were 60, 80, 142 pages long. It was clear to me that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
It still is.
So why is it then, that I’m writing this, at 2 a.m., in the office behind the front desk of the hotel where I’ve worked the night shift for over a year?
I could blame my mediocre secondary education. Just a few days ago, I was asked which book I read in high school was my favorite. My response was to laugh. Good books? In high school? Even in college I was never enthralled. Sure, I liked Vonnegut and Beckett and Joyce, but so did everybody else. I didn’t really find a writer I aspired to be, a writer of my own, until I packed a station wagon full of clothes and pictures, drove across the country to Washington State, and went to graduate school at Eastern Washington University.
I am unsure whether this was good, or bad. See, before I had something or someone specific to aspire to, I wrote a lot more, and I took a lot of pleasure in writing. Now, there are mostly questions: How will I get to be that good? How will I set myself apart? Am I not writing because I’m no longer interested, or because I’m deathly afraid of failing at the one thing I know I can do well?
I start everything, and finish nothing. I find myself tempted to start a business of selling ideas to capable writers. IdeaFarm. Word Canyon. Addled Brain. Mediocrity, Inc.
“Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”
— Gloria Steinem
In high school, the solitary creative writing course was taught by a woman whose face looked like a vagina. No lie: a friend of mine pointed out characteristics of both, and the resemblance was a little bit frightening.
She was also much like a self-help book with appendages. I learned many of the classic writing signposts from her: “Write what you know.” “Show, Don’t Tell.” “Learn the rules before you break them.”
While there is something to be learned from these statements — clichés don’t stick around unless there is some truth to them — I was sure I knew more about the art of story than she did. “Write what you know”? I was a white kid living in suburbia; who wanted to hear about that? And you don’t “tell” anyone anything in a story, that’s what instruction manuals are for. Stories are stories because they show the action.
And as for the rules. I wrote poetry scattered across the page. I wrote “sonnets” that didn’t rhyme. My best friend and I wrote a play for our final project wherein the devil was the hero and God the antagonist. When we got it back, the comments at the top read, “While I don’t agree with the subject matter, this is undoubtedly well written. 97%.”
I became co-editor of the literary magazine, along with that friend with the peculiar talent of matching people’s faces to parts of the female anatomy. I led discussions on poetry and fiction, handed out writing exercises. I helped craft a magazine that eventually came back, published, with writing and artwork filling its pages.
The thought of doing any of that terrifies me now. Heading a literary magazine? Leading writing exercises? It seems I am only brave in academic settings, places where such things are expected of me. What is expected of me here, in the normal world, far away from the enclave of academic thought? Am I supposed to become a successful novelist? Gain tenure as a college professor? Pay my bills on time? Too much, or too little?
The problem here is that no one is challenging me — I have to provide the challenge myself. And, for whatever reason, I’m no good at that. Tell me to climb a building with my bare hands, and I’ll do it. Drive me up to the building and let me out of the cab, and I’ll take the elevator.
Before my last undergraduate semester, I had finished all requirements for my major. I had helped start a theater group that wrote, directed, and acted in original plays; I had taken voice lessons; I had earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English. So, to reward myself, I signed up for a poetry workshop and a fiction workshop to fill the last few months of my college education.
The poetry course was fine — I loved poetry for the images it let me create, and my poems tended to be tiny little stories. My main focus was the fiction workshop. I had a great idea I wanted to try out: a story with two narrators, simultaneously. No section breaks, no chapter headings. Just one narrator in regular type, and one in italics. I had fun with it, making the voices of the narrators different, unfolding a plot through two sets of eyes. I handed it out to my classmates and could hardly sit still, waiting for next week’s class.
When we all filed into the Literary House that next week, I was sure I had impressed everyone with my technical prowess and guile. It turned out I was mistaken.
Nobody understood what was going on.
A few people were aware of both narrators, but they all asked an altogether unfamiliar question: “What does it do for the story?”
I thought, What do you mean, “What does it do for the story”? It is the story.
In most writing workshops, there is a rule that the author cannot speak until after everyone is done giving their comments. So, as everyone struggled with what the hell was going on in my poor, persecuted story, I had to sit on the floor, my legs crossed, my mouth shut. I was frustrated. The class was frustrated. During a pronounced lull in the discussion, my professor adjusted his glasses, sat back in his armchair, and said this: “There is some very good writing here. But I think Sean is a little bit too enamored of his idea.”
I could feel every bit of angry pride drain out of my pores. It seemed that the only person who had continued to be impressed by my rule-breaking was me.
Long walks down to the Chesapeake Bay ensued. I considered taking up smoking — surely, that would make me a better writer. I thought about how I had always been breaking the rules, even as a kid: using fingers to signify who was talking, and names before quotations to avoid pesky grammar and “he said,” “she said”s.
I had never liked the limitations reality put on me. I had always wanted to be something greater, not in usual kid sense — not in the fireman or astronaut or president sense — but in a way that was wholly unique. I wanted magical powers. I wanted to be a ninja. I wanted to have a clear, important task ahead of me, like a video game hero charged with saving the world.
Writing had ever been my escape. And its ability to break the rules was why I had pursued it all this time.
“It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.”
— Virginia Woolf
It is a possibility that some people — professional athletes, perhaps, or nuclear physicists — have escapes that are physically or mentally difficult.
But what does a normal person want with a safe haven that’s serious work? Now that I have earned two degrees and read hundreds of books, there is so much more information to process, so much more to consider. When writing a story, or a poem, or a non-fiction essay becomes the least bit difficult for me, I just surrender. I start something else. Maybe I feel writing should come easily to me, or it isn’t an escape at all.
It turns out I am, after all, a normal person. In a disaster movie, I would be an extra. In the event that an awesome evil threatens the universe, I would be a townsperson, walking my set path, spouting the same two or three lines of dialogue.
I’m not writing less because it means less to me; it’s because it means a little too much now. Writing isn’t just my mechanism of dealing with reality — it’s become my talent and my trademark, what sets me apart from other people. I don’t want it to just be my hobby; I want it to be my livelihood.
I don’t want to be a fireman, or an astronaut, or the president. I want to be a writer.
It seems, however, that this isn’t enough. It’s one of the toughest things about growing up: learning that sometimes, love just isn’t enough. Your whole life we’re taught that it is, that it has to be — you can be anything you want to be, child, as long as you’re passionate enough. Love will let you overcome every obstacle, every class-ism or racism or stereotype.
God is love, child. And if God can’t do it, who, or what, can?
But then we go about our lives and we see couples break up because of “bad timing,” or distance, or different plans. We see wives of 25 years die of cancer. We see people choose the love of God over the love of another human being, when it was all supposed to be different parts of the same love — that one just brought us closer to the other.
I love writing — what else do I need? What am I missing?
I am afraid of failing. I keep little sadnesses inside of me, like ball bearings, preferring to swallow my emotions than appear vulnerable.
I am a little too scared of losing my mind.
I never expected this — any of this — to be so hard.
A friend of mine told me recently, “I don’t believe in one true love. It isn’t possible. You find somebody, you decide whether it’s worth it, and if it is, you fight like hell for it.”
Alright then. This is worth it. Time to fight like hell.
“The act of writing is an act of optimism. You would not take the trouble to do it if you felt it didn’t matter.”
— Edward Albee