Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Taking that Leap of Faith

"You should be a writer."

I've heard this approximately five times each week for most of the weeks in my life. Although I am a writer, publishing pieces in a variety of minor publications while stringing together thousands of words each week for other purposes, I often don't feel like a writer because I have never in my entire life been paid even one slender dime for anything I've written. So I guess that people really mean "you should be paid to write" or "you should write a book" when they say, "you should be a writer."

My ambition to be a writer started early and was received like a lightning strike. One fine summer day shortly before starting first grade, I was at a church picnic when I remember responding to the typical adult question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

"I want to be a writer." I replied. Maybe it was my boldness and childlike confidence, but the reaction was immediate and negative.

"What? You don't want to get married and have kids instead?" As if this was ever an either-or choice. In fact, if you'd been there, you might have thought I'd instead said that I wanted to be a card dealer in Vegas or the madam of the Mustang Ranch or, as I actually did realize and admit a few years later, that I wanted to be a scientist who studies evolution. Oddly, my parents shared this peculiar attitude with their church-going pals and confiscated my writings whenever they noticed me working on them. The reasons for this mystified me for many years, but in retrospect, I realize that devising ways to impede any and all of my interests was an interesting expression of their consuming need for control.

So I hid myself under my bedcovers at night while writing by flashlight, occasionally poking my head out for a fresh breath of air. I sometimes think of these early years of writing as my "turtle years". After my family moved into a new house when I was 10, I arranged my closet so it held a secret hideaway behind my dresser where I stretched out to write. Because I felt like I was hiding inside the wall itself and also for other reasons, I think of these years, which ended abruptly when I was 15, as my "Anne Frank years".

Every day, I could hardly wait to come home from school to resume writing, to spend time with my secret friends who populated my imagination, whose voices echoed through my dreams and whose continuing adventures distracted me from my personal miseries. I dreaded summer vacations away from school because my parents were often available to remind me of my many flaws, but they generally left me alone as long as I stayed out of their sight. So I found a variety of secret places that helped them forget about me and where I could immerse myself in my writing, drawing and reading.

But my parents' antagonism towards my writing grew. By the time I was 11 or 12, they found all the places in my bedroom where I hid my writings and drawings and they would take them away to punish me. Asking them to return "my book" after a day or two of "punishment" was fruitless, so I became a master thief, and I was particularly adept at picking the door lock of my father's office, borrowing my book long enough to replace written pages and drawings with blank paper.

Before it was finally confiscated, my stories and drawings lived in an old beat-up black 3-ring binder. I wrote on lined paper (college ruled was my favorite) or on plain white typing paper. In those days (before I fractured my wrist several times), my handwriting was lovely; a distinctive angular and precise printing (I disliked cursive and used it only when necessary). Because writing was an asthetic achievement as much as an imaginative one, I practiced my lettering skills and was able to accurately reproduce about a dozen different fonts freehand.

By the time I was 11 or 12, I realized that my parents and several other family members were secretly reading my diary and my writings. I was horrified. But my fondness for lettering came in handy because I quickly invented my first of several alphabets to encode all of my writings. For a time, inventing beautiful alphabets and intricate codes became more interesting than writing itself, especially when I began to share these alphabets and codes with my few school friends, who immediately adopted them so we could pass notes during class, notes that were indecipherable if intercepted.

In view of the obstacles that I overcame to actively pursue writing, you might wonder why I am not a famous writer now? Where are my works of art? Do I still keep them hidden away under my bedsheets? I spend a fair amount of time pondering these questions but my lack of reasonable answers has led me to conclude that I have not progressed much in my personal development throughout the years. In many ways, I am still that 12 year old kid, huddled behind my closeted dresser in semi-darkness, scratching out stories in an exotic alphabet of my own invention.

It would be so easy to say that my writing never received any recognition, that I just didn't have a clue that I might possess some raw talent, but this isn't true. In fact, I was first recognized as having real literary potential by my third grade teacher, who read my childish tales with interest and encouraged me to write for publication. Later, my high school english teacher, Mrs. McQ, a short stocky woman with raven-black hair and shocking red lips who treated me like a daughter, told me that I should write a book. Further, she went to extraordinary lengths to support me on my journey toward this, her vision of my destiny. Unfortunately, my unexpected detention in state reform school prevented me from taking advantage of her kind offer to stay in her cabin for the summer while I wrote, and I lost track of her by the time I had been released. Considering this positive and supportive feedback from my teachers, what happened?

Like all writers who think about making the transition from recreational to professional writing, I am insecure. I worry about the same things that all writers worry about; that I cannot write well or I will not be able to write consistently (despite evidence to the contrary), that I will either not have the time for recreational writing or that I will lose sight of the joy I find in writing. But more than anything else, there is one reason that stops me cold. The truth is that I am a capable enough verbal mechanic, a wordsmith of sorts, but I believe that I have nothing of value to say. I wrestle with this daily and my friends assure me this is not true. Unsurprisingly, facing a career/life crisis combined with impending unemployment has left me lost and unsure of myself, and unsure of everyone else, too. But if I do become unemployed, writing a book will certainly not take precious time and energy away from my research. At this critical point in my life, I have little to lose by writing and in fact, writing would challenge me while also satisfying my intense need to live a creative and productive life.

What am I waiting for? I am disgusted and frustrated with my habitual timidity, so I am working on changing that. I have a book topic that I am working on, I have a persistent editor who believes in me and in my proposed book, and I have a publisher who is willing to give me a small advance. If I become unemployed in a few weeks, writing a book will provide much-needed purpose and structure for my life and I will find myself with plenty of time to work on it. However, if I magically find a job in the next few weeks, I can still write this book on weekends and in the early mornings if I schedule my time carefully. It is time for me to grow up and to pursue the other part of my life's work; writing. So I am making my writing schedule. I am determined. I have the discipline. I have the ability. I am a scientist and this is an experiment I have never conducted before.

I am getting ready to take that leap of faith.

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