"And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul...the soul that dares and defies."
-Kate Chopin, The Awakening

20 January 2011

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

-Ernest Hemingway

Once, in an intermediate writing seminar I took as a requirement for my B.A., my writing professor asked me and the eleven others in my class to take a few moments and write a page on "why it is you want to be a writer."  It was the kind of question I had gotten used to since transferring into the writing program at Emerson, where I had absentmindedly fallen into a community of students who, as a means of entertainment, debated the validity of second person narration.  At Emerson, I found myself a somewhat apathetic member of the Writing, Literature, and Publishing major, branded a "WLP student," but lacking the blind passion for writing which my classmates possessed.  And though I knew I didn't have the same writing aspirations as the other students in my classes, Emerson was my third college in two years, and I didn't have the stamina to transfer again, so I made up my mind to pretend I was a writer. 

When we were finished with our assignments, my professor called on some students to share their thoughts.  He called on me when students stopped volunteering, and although I had generally been a teacher's pet throughout my entire school career, I declined to share.  I declined not because I did not approve of my work, but because I didn't want him to know the truth.  I didn't want the first professor who believed in my writing, who had once defended my work against the negative opinions of the entire class, to know that I was a fraud.  I didn't want him to know that I had never envisioned myself a writer, that I did not harbor a secret passion for publication alongside the likes of Allen Ginsberg.

Due to a recent midnight-cleaning spree, I was able to find the notebook I used for the class.  I've copied out what I wrote in class that day.  I added some paragraph breaks to keep you all from having to read a mammoth block of text, but otherwise, I've made no edits:

"Writing began as a requirement.  And no, not some romantic ideal of words and sentences and images which would not relent their torture of me until I had brought them to life.  Writing courses required for my major forced me--upon threat of failure--into the creation of places and people, conversations and conflicts.  My sister was always the writer of the family, and I, by default, was required to choose another hobby while she created worlds filled with dragons and princes.  

The very first time I was asked to write fiction--every Friday as part of my middle school English curriculum--I wrote about how I wished my life had been, innocent stories filled with families of nine children and even more pets.  Writing was a game, my best friend and I writing the same piece of our novel from the perspective of different characters.  The endeavor was stopped when Samantha produced not a creatively different point-of-view, but a nearly identical copy of my carefully crafted original.

In high school, on the rare occasion one of my teachers chose to assign a short story, I created plots I believed would shock and astound with their surprise endings and suddenly remorseful characters.  I received an A- for my most prized effort, although the stab came on the last page when I noticed the perfect penmanship of my teachers comment: 'verisimilitude?'.  When I first saw the word, I had no idea of its definition.  I can ensure you now I will never forget.  Although the blow--somewhat overly exaggerated in its reproduction as I re-write it years later--is easily recalled, I cannot blame the critique for any decision on my part to desist writing.  I had never started writing, and did not have plans to take it up as a life-long passion.

After two years of badly chosen colleges, struggling to make it through my semesters as one of hundreds in generically comfortable 'English Department's, I transferred to my third school, where writing classes were required for my major.  Wondering what I would ever write about and nervous about the response of others, I attempted to hide my in-class exercises from others' wandering eyes and was too nervous to read anything aloud.  But somehow, in the act of being forced to write, the characters became too vivid not to explore.

I wrote my required short stories at the last minute, struggling to have a complete story to hand in.  And despite its poor reception--one of my classmates critiquing that he, 'had no idea what the f*** was going on,' and another deciding that all in all my story was 'pointless,' I realized that I had created something truthful to me--characters who breathed and lived and, to my delight, created controversy.  The high school student hoping to shock with stories which concluded in the realization that the protagonist father had killed his own son by mistake had never left my writing intentions, and now had been reborn--and fueled--by my classmates' erstwhile attempts to get me to write about something else.  I had discovered a power not only over my characters, but over my audience, a power which I continue to explore as I continue to write.


When I read books as a child, I never imagined the process of writing to be one that would be so incredibly challenging.  It was only through the process of taking required classes which forced me to sit down and actually craft stories myself that  I realized the beautiful effort required.  And, once I realized this, I found that I was hooked on the possibilities, that I had understood a voice inside myself that wanted to scream out loud its refusal to be quiet any longer.  I began to understand the world of fiction, and, more surprisingly, understood that I could have a place in it.  Somewhere between transferring into a program that was a last option and graduating with a degree in writing, I became a writer.  I became the kind of person who loves mapping out plots and structuring dialogue.  The kind of person who feels best when she works through her emotions in pen and ink and who struggles every day to find the right words to convey the proper emotion or subtle character trait.  I have even become the kind of person who can hold her own debating the negatively constricting qualities of second-person narration. 

And now that I've found the writer inside me, I refuse to let her go.  I may never find my books in the stacks of libraries or have stories published in The New Yorker, but I will continue to write.  I will write if only because it makes me feel more connected to myself.  I will write because I have so much to say; I will write because my story is untold.  And if I were forced to answer my professor's question again, my answer would be much simpler this time, and free of the shame that used to cripple me. 

I want to be a writer because I have become the kind of person who understands the comforting, cathartic thrill that can come from sitting down at my computer to bleed.

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