“I don’t know what I think until I write about it.” — Joan Didion
I’ve been writing stories since I was five years old.
When I was five I had the most amazing kindergarten teacher anyone could ever ask for, Mrs. London. She is the woman who inspired me to write, who kindled my love for reading and writing. The mothers of the students in my class would make us little hardbound books, the covers made of discarded remnants of fabric or wallpaper pasted over cardboard with little white pages nestled inside. We were encouraged in the beginning to dictate our stories to Mrs. London, a teacher’s aide, or a parent, and then accompany the words with our own drawings in colored markers. After this introduction, we then began to physically write our own words. At age five we were not the best of spellers, but that was not the point. The point was to tell our own, authentic stories. We wrote what we knew or what we had seen or read in our lives. Some of my stories were about snow, an occurrence I had never seen before, or a family that included a father, which I never had, but many of them were about me and my family, or a cat that I wished to have, or a life I wished to see. Without even knowing it, I was becoming the author of my life. This experience was invaluable to my formation as a human being. Looking back, it’s awe-inspiring that this little kindergarten ritual informed my growth and passion; writing is something I still do today, though not as much as I would like to.
What Mrs. London did for me was provide me with an avenue to express myself, to create worlds, to use my imagination. I always loved reading and making up stories, but this amazing woman showed me that I could be a storyteller, that what I had to say was worthy of putting down on paper or telling to someone else to write down for me. She taught us five-year-olds that what we had to say was significant and something to be shared. This practice came at a time when I needed it the most, after being molested by my father at age two, a confusing, frightening experience that upended my little world and introduced fear into the mind of someone who should never have to be afraid of more than a bee sting or not having someone to play with at recess. Instead my reality was fraught with trepidation, unspeakable emotion, an event that changed my life but that I did not yet have the words to express how I felt about it. Though I wrote stories of rainbows and kittens, of princesses and snowballs, I had endured an event no child, no human, should ever have to encounter. And with writing, I was given the freedom to transcend this event, to change my reality, to dwell in the possible rather than the impossible.
At age twelve, the seemingly impossible happened. I became a published author. My love for writing, a private, personal hobby of sorts, was made tangible in the fifth grade when I met Jonathan London (no relation to Mrs. London), my friend’s father and a children’s books author. He was helping out in class one day and read a short story that I had written for Writer’s Workshop. He, to my surprise, asked if I had written anything else that I would be willing to share with him. And, to his surprise, the next time I saw him I handed him a full composition notebook with extra pages stuffed in the back; a novella I had written in my spare time. Jonathan became my unofficial agent, tirelessly championing me and my work, until my novella, The Diary of Chickabiddy Baby, was accepted and published by Tricycle Press in Berkeley.
To see, to feel a tangible thing, to experience the rare luck of being accepted by a publishing company. To achieve something at the age of twelve that some people never accomplish or work their whole lives trying to accomplish, is both exciting and terrifying. So terrifying that I became paralyzed by the self-induced pressure of “peaking” so early. What was initially done for pleasure, for just the sheer fun of it, as a way to express myself, became a practice that was almost too much to bear. When you’re young you (hopefully) don’t experience the plague of self-doubt, don’t become trapped in the mire of judgement: both yours and the feared judgement from others. When I wrote as a child, I was free. Free from my reality, free from daily life, free from fear. As I grew older, the fear crept in. Fear of never being good enough, fear of never creating something real and true, devoid of artifice or the hallmarks of something that’s been done before. I worried about pleasing everyone rather than focusing on pleasing myself. I suffered from crippling writer’s block. The inspiration and imagination of my youth, the realm of possibility, ebbed away as I grew older and was introduced to what other people thought. I feared I would never complete another story, that my success was a fluke, an accident, and would never happen again. I feared that I had copied what I liked from other stories rather than used my own wellspring of imagination, though now I know that what is written has all been written before; what is different is the telling of it. It is my own voice, the pure and divine self that dwells within each of us, that makes my writing unique, that makes all writing unique. It is the construction of sentences and ideas, the investigation of occurrences, that renders a story unique and true. It is not necessarily the story itself.
Though I still struggle with self-criticism and doubt, going to college in 2011 to pursue Creative Writing reintroduced me to my love, my passion. I began to write again with more freedom than I had in years. Though writing is a solitary practice, college taught me that I am a member of a tribe. We are a far-flung tribe, residing in every part of the world but also, most importantly, in our imaginations. I call this tribe the Storytellers, and here are some of our secrets:
While we only write what we know, we also steal snippets of conversations, the nuances of well-written sentences, the imagery of a poem, hell, sometimes we even steal a whole story and tell it as our own. The euphemism of our trade is “storytellers.” What we really are is thieves. It’s a compulsion, really. You can’t fault us for jotting down what you said on the phone or creating a version of you that is better/worse than who you really are. What we do is a compulsion. If we don’t create this amalgam of real and unreal, we can die. We can die of a myriad of ailments, but most of all, we can die from the truth of the world.
The truth of the world is that it is a beautiful and wondrous but also chaotic, nebulous place. Though we can believe in karma, in fate, in a semblance of order, the signature of all things, we can’t help but see the genocide, the innocent children dying, the serial killers, the Ebola outbreak. The only way to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense is to write. To write is to harness a sense of control in a world that offers no real control. We write in order to live.
We feel intensely, painfully. We are observers, we are acutely aware, we notice the flutter of a red scarf in the November wind and think of flags whipping in ancient Sparta. We see the curve of someone’s neck and think of a husband strangling his wife to death in South Dakota. We notice a recycling bin full of empty bottles and think of a housewife with a drinking problem that is going to leave her life and disappear. These meaningless attributes of everyday life converge or materialize as the beginning of a story, the end of a chapter, a preface or an epilogue.
Sometimes the many facets of human existence can seem too much to bear, too much to take. When everything is overwhelming, or so awfully mundane, the pen or the keyboard offers a sense of relief, a reprieve from the endless seeing. Writers have been called the prophets of their time, but perhaps that is too grand a statement to agree with completely. Writers are the interpreters. We mold, extract, distill, define, disfigure, complete. We take everything apart and put it back together, sometimes in its original form and sometimes as something else entirely.
We crave silence in order to listen to the voices in our heads while simultaneously needing human interaction to inform our solitude and create our worlds. The life of a writer is lonely, crowded, melancholy and exultant. We understand our characters more than we understand the people in our lives. Perhaps we understand our characters more than/in order to understand ourselves.
We experiment, delete, highlight, extend, and truncate. We revise, revise, revise. And it is never good enough. We experience crippling self-doubt more than we revel in confidence and ease. We over-think and over-analyze, we replay events and words over and over in our heads, the voices that reside within battling for center stage. We dominate while we submit, trying to determine which will make us more successful. We are the leaders of the dance, we are the followers. And there is nothing else we would rather be doing.
I wish you a wild, free life.