All of us have our dirty little secrets. For example, when I was a small child, I had parasitic worms. On more than one occasion. This grosses out many people (like my city-boy husband), but when you spend all day playing in the dirt and most of the summer without shoes, parasites happen. I feel my digestive tract is healthier all in all because of it.
When I first started joining things like Facebook, and then blogging, the idea of disclosing details of my life to an anonymous, amorphous crowd of people out there in cyberspace was really terrifying. And look at me now. Telling the whole universe about my worms.
Only slightly more shameful to me than having had worms as a small child is my desire to write and be a writer. I have written–stories, diaries, poems–for pretty much as along as I can remember. I started my first diary in 5th grade. In various boxes distributed in my basement and my mother’s attic are stories I started writing in elementary school. When I was young, I felt no shame in telling everyone I wanted to be a writer. Why not? Anything seemed possible.
In college, many other people also wanted to write, and it just seemed so lame, didn’t it, to say you wanted to be a writer? Yeh, you and everyone’s uncle. But I took my first creative writing classes, from the great poet and fellow Kentuckian Greg Miller, and then from another Southern writer, Clyde Edgerton, who wrote Raney, a book you should surely read. Edgerton at the end of our class told me that if I kept writing, I would get published. The part of that message I could not believe was the “if I kept writing.” Why would I ever stop writing? Writing was who I was, what I did. I could no more stop writing than I could stop breathing.
And then I did. I stopped. I went to graduate school in sociology. I got busy. I lost faith. I lost my way. Those years of graduate school seem in many ways like the lost years in my life, a necessary evil which got me the job I have now. I went to a writers conference while I was in graduate school, but it seemed all the energy that in the past was directed into writing became absorbed by teaching and research. I wrote what was, I think, a quite beautiful dissertation. But it seems to me the surest way to kill your ability to write is to sit down and try to craft a literature review or a journal article. These things are like the anti-writing. Do everything within your power to make a half-way interesting subject as boring and devoid of any humanity as possible. But it seemed that was the writing I was destined to do.
It’s funny that during the years I was in graduate school and the first few years of having a real job as a professor, I searched almost continuously for things to make me happy. I ran. I looked for a husband. I obsessed over having a child. But I didn’t write. I didn’t keep a journal. I didn’t write poems. And that past in which I had once wanted to be a writer became something vaguely embarrassing, like the fact that the first concert I ever went to was Amy Grant (or perhaps Air Supply, but is that any better?). But, really, even more embarrassing than that.
Then in 2008, something compelled me to start a blog. I was in the middle of writing a sociology of gender textbook, a book that would, if I finished it and it was good enough, be published. Those seemed like big if’s at the time. But I was writing, and I was writing something that was not a journal article or a literature review. Something into which I could inject some style and personality. I started a blog, but felt guilty every time I wrote an entry, because I needed to be working on my textbook. In the first two years of this blog’s existence (it was called Rubber Room at the time–don’t ask), I wrote a total of 12 entries. And then in November of last year I read The Happiness Project and saw that Gretchen Rubin had started a blog. “I could do that,” I thought. In fact, I already had a blog. It just needed some tweaking. And tweak I did.
And before I realized it, I was writing again. Sometimes about my life, and sometimes about my town, and a lot about the books I read. But it was writing. And it was fun. It felt good. Sometimes it was good to be able to rant about something. Sometimes it was good to be able to figure things out. Sometimes no one commented on my posts at all, but it had still gone out there, into the universe. And that felt very good.
I noticed a little button on some folks’ blogs that said SheWrites, and eventually I checked it out. The first few times I looked at the site I thought, “Well, but I’m not a writer.” And then my book came out and I looked at the site more closely and I said to myself, “Well, I am a writer. I wrote a book. I write a blog. Writer? Check.” So I joined and didn’t do much more than that.
I thought I should probably write about my sociology of gender textbook on my blog, but I didn’t, and I started to wonder why. Technically, the book makes me a published writer, which was exactly what I always wanted to be. But I generally find that everyone around me is much more excited about my textbook than I am. Sometimes they seem a bit disappointed at how not excited I am. It is cool to see your name on the cover of a book, and I believe it’s a good and well-written gender textbook. But here’s something I’ve just realized myself. Mostly when I look at that massive book, I think to myself, “If you could write that, surely you can write the book you’ve always wanted to write, as well? Surely you can write a novel, or some short stories, or something? Can’t you?”
Are you a writer or not? It seems you have to ask that question of yourself every time you sit down in front of the computer or a typewriter or whatever your chosen implement is. Are you a writer or not? Are you going to put words on the page today, or aren’t you? It’s as simple as that, which is not really very simple at all. When I was writing the gender textbook, there was a deadline, and people in an office somewhere in California who would eventually ask where the next chapter was. When you’re writing for yourself, there are generally no such people. Just you and a room and the words and the blank page. Are you a writer or not?
I may still never get anything besides my textbook published, but today, yes, I am a writer. As I’ve learned through this blog, there’s something valuable in the act of writing regardless of whether you ever get the gold stamp of approval that getting published signifies. In The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton, writing is an act of empowerment for women whose lives put them on the fringe of the women’s movement beginning to rage around them. In just the first chapter of Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she gently points out that published writers are not necessarily any happier than those who are not published. Writing itself can be an act of joy.
For years I’ve felt like my desire to be a writer had been my own dirty little secret, something rather embarrassing to admit to. It’s so passe, so pedestrian, so corny. Turn a rock over, and there’s someone who wants to be a writer. But how many of us actually write? One of the joys of getting older is finding far fewer things embarrassing.
I had worms as a small child, and I’m a writer.