I used to be a writer.
I used to take it pretty seriously, too, and while I’ve never been absolutely phenomenal at it, I’ve always been a decent writer at the very least. My whole life (okay, since I was two or three years old, but before I was even in pre-school) I have wanted to teach. The only other occupation that I even considered was one in writing, and I knew that it couldn’t be my only occupation. In addition to my teaching career, I had big plans to write a novel. But as Phil Collins would say, something happened on the way to Heaven.
In sixth grade I worked my ass off filling up notebooks with a book called Hippy Zone – a story in which these twins (a boy and a girl) are time-traveling hippies who, in 1995, go back in time and meet their parents at Woodstock. I obviously didn’t have the first clue in my twelve-year-old naivete about what those kids probably really would have seen, or else the line “Mom? Dad? Why are you naked and covered in mud, rolling around with five other people? And what’s that funny smell?” would have surely been included. It didn’t matter because I was taking it seriously. I worked on writing it every night by hand (I still prefer to, when possible, write things out by hand first) and then took it to school to type since my family didn’t have a computer then. Pretty soon the kids in my grade started to get curious about it, so I’d print it off periodically so they could read it. All of a sudden, people who had never paid attention to me before were asking me about my book (this carried over even into 7th grade, when all of the elementary schools came together at the junior high and new people found out about it). Suddenly I was known as a writer.
So I ran with it. Well, after two years I ran with it. I stopped caring about writing, school, and life in general during 7th and 8th, and a large part of 9th grade, but in 9th grade I took a creative writing class and got myself back in the saddle. This time, my thing was [often bad, teenage angst-filled] poetry, and I started taking that seriously. In 10th grade, my guidance counselor quit, so when it came time for my career meeting, a standard 10th grade meeting in my district, my parents and I sat down with another counselor (she’s my brother’s guidance counselor now, and I still can’t thank her enough for how much she has helped me – especially with this career meeting and also ten years later when I was working at the school, but I digress).
After telling her that I really enjoyed writing, she went to a filing cabinet and pulled out a pamphlet. “There’s a school a couple of hours away from here called Susquehanna University. They have a writing workshop camp for high school students in the summer. I think you should look into it.” I ended up applying and being accepted to that camp, and in many ways, it changed my life. I fell in love with the school, and, over the next two summers (I was accepted again after my 11th grade year), I met a number of people whom I would come to know when we all ended up attending Susquehanna for college. These people included my first roommate, Cori, whom I lived with freshman and sophomore years, and Emily, whom I lived with my senior year. One of my roommates during the summer I stayed at college, Devon, was also a participant in this camp. The workshop also taught me so much more about writing, and I came away from it with a renewed faith in myself as a writer, eager to try all the techniques that I’d learned. More than anything, I learned the value of a workshop setting and how to take constructive criticism. I am still a firm believer in having someone read my work to provide me with feedback, and I’ve learned to welcome the suggestions. I feel disappointed when someone says “Nothing to change. Looks good to me!” and offers nothing in the way of bettering it because I know that no one writes a perfect draft the first time.
Right before we left for winter break in 11th grade, my government teacher made us all sit down and look into a video camera to tell what our plan was for the new millennium, as Y2K was approaching. Nevermind that this wasn’t actually the beginning of the new millennium (that would be 2001, but most people considered it 2000, anyway). When it was my turn, I walked up, sat down, and said “I’m going to write a book.” Then I got up and walked away just as quickly.
Nine years passed, and I did nothing to fulfill that dream. I went to Susquehanna, majored in English, minored in secondary education and creative writing, worked in the writing center, had one of my best-written analytical papers nominated by a professor to be sent to a Norton essay contest, had that same paper published in the school’s literary criticism magazine, graduated, started teaching, and then did the grad school thing. I’d burnt myself out on writing, and the few attempts I had made over the years to jump-start my creative side just flopped miserably. In October 2009, my tiny social circle was suddenly abuzz with NaNoWriMo – a term I’d never heard. National Novel Writing Month. Cori mentioned it to me, and soon I found myself saying I was up for the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. My officially listed writing buddies were all people I’d known from Susquehanna – friends and teachers. I started the month off pretty shakily, but then I just took off. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote some more. Part of what made it so easy for me was that I knew it didn’t have to be great and I knew I didn’t have to edit. It was like my beloved Peter Elbow’s free-write concept only applied to creative writing. At 3:30 in the morning on Thanksgiving, shortly before my mother woke up to start cooking the turkey, I crossed the 50,000 word mark, and I was so proud of myself. I’d gotten it in there in just under 10 years. Finally, that prediction that I’d made in 11th grade had come true (I hadn’t said anything about publishing, after all)!
There was one problem, though. The as-yet-untitled novel wasn’t finished. I still needed about 10,000 or so more words to get myself to an ending. The challenge was over. I just stopped. Two months later, I still haven’t opened the document back up to try to finish it. The other night, while openly pondering on Facebook what I should do to cure my never-ending unemployment boredom, another Susquehanna friend suggested that I work on my novel. It had really never occurred to me to do that to cure boredom, but now I’m wondering why I haven’t. Is it because the challenge is gone? Is it because I’m just a slacker? Or have I, this whole time, been a fraudulent writer? To be fair, I’ve been writing something – emails, blogs, Facebook and Twitter updates – but my concern here is how to get back that spark for something I used to love so much, and how to create something of substance. It would be a shame (and tragically ironic) if academia quashed my desire to learn, practice, and grow as a writer.