Coming out as a writer

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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.

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Comments

  1. Your post really resonated with me…not the part about the worms, although that made me giggle; but the part about the writing dream, born in childhood, and then interrupted.

    I, too, took time off from writing to pursue a career, and spent more than three decades writing case notes and reports for the juvenile court (CPS social worker).

    Ah, but I had marvelous reports, didn't I? I had to believe it.

    But finally I started writing novels…after. After I retired. I wrote five of them very quickly, and sent out queries and manuscripts; had a contract with a small press; and then nothing. They ran out of money!

    I'd wasted enough time, so I found a subsidiary of Amazon (Book Surge, now Create Space) and published my books. They're hefty ones and they capture bits and pieces of my social work experiences transformed into fiction.

    Now I'm writing again, in a blogging community, and participating in writing challenges. It feels different this time. Like I'm connected to other writers. It feels good!

    Here's MY SUNDAY SALON POST

    Thanks for sharing….

  2. I suspect the reason you feel uncomfortable with saying you're a writer (which, you certainly are, in all senses, especially the one that implies a “good” writer) is that you have always achieved results, and yet you wonder whether you will succeed this time, in the way you want.

    Or maybe, I'm just projecting my own experience on to your words – if so, I apologize. But I do wonder whether it's fear of failure that is the real dirtiness of the secret. I've been there, but then I took courage from the knowledge that I'd always been a trier. If I hadn't tried to pass exams, I wouldn't have done, and really the stakes were higher then. There's no time limit on writing. You just have to try and see.

  3. Anne Lamott has it right (write?): “Writing itself can be an act of joy”

    Congrats on your success – on publishing the sociology text, on joining SheWrites, and on “coming out as a writer.” Best to you!

  4. Like you, I wanted to be a writer from the time I was small, and was forever writing something or other.
    At least until I became an adult, when “real life” kicked in and there just was never enough time to write.

    When I started blogging, it was the perfect opportunity to resurrect that writer within, the one who had never died but was just lying fallow, waiting to someone to wake her up.

    Yes, I believe anyone who has a love and need to express themselves via the printed word, and who does do, is definitely a writer. Own it!

  5. If it is any consolation, your written work helped inspire your little brother, too. Unfortunately, I've been in the same boat – when is there time for writing when lectures need to be planned and tests need to be graded? There are some nights, though, when I put myself to sleep imagining having a short story or two published.

  6. So many things I would to say here but I don't have time to formulate my thoughts. You are a very good writer, published or not. I seek out your blog regularly. I hope that you keep practicing and I would surely read anything that you published – except maybe another textbook because I am sick of those. (sorry). I love Wednesday Sisters and it was the book that sent me back to college. I love Annie Lamott. I love to write but every one of my days goes by so fast I forget to do what I love best. Thanks for a lovely post. Belle

  7. Laurel, thanks for sharing you experiences and congrats on publishing your books. Like you, I'm so glad to be able to blog and have that sense of community and sharing with other folks.

    Deborah, yes, I think you're right. Anyone can write, but can you be a “successful” writer, whatever that means. I've learned for many things in life, it's better to focus on the process rather than the end result, and I'm trying to apply that to writing as well. I like thinking about there being no time limit, though.

    Dawn, thanks. I'm so enjoying re-reading Annie Lamott's book.

    Becca, it's sad how many of us somehow find ourselves moving away from the things we know made us happy. But glad we've both found our way back!

    Boo, that does mean a lot to have inspired my little brother. When I think I don't have time, I try to think of all the writers I know who somehow found the time in the middle of chaotic lives, even women who wrote novels while they had small children. I guess you just have to make it a priority and then make it a habit.

    Belle, thanks so much. I don't blame you at all for having had enough of textbooks! That's great that a book helped send you back to college! I often find I know what I need to do to be happy in my life, but for some reason, I don't always do it.

  8. I am really enjoying your blog, it has provided me an immense information I was searching for months. I am working on my literature review and it seems that with your blog's help,I will come up wiht a perfect review.Regards.

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