08 September 2013

Why I Write*

Living the dream.
*This title is stolen from the Joan Didion essay, "Why I Write," who, fun fact, stole her title from George Orwell's essay by the same name. This blog post is inspired by both the Joan Didion essay, that I just re-discovered in the messy "Re-Read when Bored" bookmark folder on my Chrome, as well as the recent Thought Catalog post 33 Authors On Why They Write, which, conveniently, references Didion and Orwell's essays. I will now stop this complicated and run-on beginning footnote and get on with my own essay.

I wrote my first short story when I was seven; I was bored on a vacation in West Virginia, there was a thunder storm, and my aunt had that computer paper that ceased to exist after the 90s, the kind that was perforated on the edges and connected into one long, long piece of paper that would only separate if carefully torn. The story was about a little boy frog and a dad frog. The little boy frog was bored on a vacation, stuck inside because of a thunderstorm (I must have dug deep for that premise), and did not like any of the suggestions the dad had for his son - board games (aptly spelled "bored" games), running around the living room, playing with one of seven cats (no logic in this story - a frog with a pet cat?), and drawing pictures of dolphins on computer paper. The little frog never found anything to do because I never finished the story - a precursor to how a majority of my short stories would end up later in life.

In high school, I knew I was a genius because I wrote in my diary every three months about "real" things. Freshman year, my grandpa died, and I wrote really crappy poems with cliche'd metaphors and phrases like, "I'd walk the path to heaven to find you." And, like the short story about the frog, my mother made photocopies of all my crappy poems, giving me the photocopies and keeping the original handwritten ones in her underwear drawer next to the Tic-Tac box of my baby teeth. She made me feel like I had real talent - a mother is one of the most dangerous creatures when it comes to pursuing a creative life. I could literally copy a sentence out of Snooki's book and my mother would think it was beautiful and well-rounded and toss me a photocopy of it on her way to filing it in her underwear drawer.

I know that deep down, I was writing to cope with the sadness and loneliness any grieving teenager would have, but mostly it just made me feel important. I carried around this black and white composition notebook and scribbled little bits and pieces from people's conversations like a detective. I wrote in class and at lunch and made sure everyone could see that I was writing without ever showing them what I was writing. I still have that notebook. It sits in a box with twelve other notebooks filled with scribbles. My favorite line is stolen from a conversation between my mother and her college roommate: "Honey, I'd have a beard if it weren't for my good eye."

I've continued to write in lined notebooks since then, taking a break sophomore year of high school to write in a graph-paper-lined notebook. That notebook was my food journal, or rather, my eating disorder journal. In it, I taped pictures of women's thin arms and abs and those annoying tear-out workout cards from Shape magazine, using it as "inspiration," or, in other words, reasons for me not to eat. When I did eat, I would overeat and throw up in my parents’ shower. I only remember this because it's conveniently logged like a police report in the graph-paper lined notebook. It lasted three months and I lost a lot of weight, but I also hated every moment I spent counting calories and doing crunches late at night on my bedroom floor. 

In the year following the food journal, I got healthy again, at least physically, just in time for my grandmother to become incredibly sick. She was my best friend and the reason I got through many painful nights in high school. It was at 16 that I started to see a bigger picture forming in my mind: she was dying, and I could not save her. So instead, I carried my notebook with me and recorded our conversations and pieces of advice she would offer me. I scribbled things like, "I used to smile all the time," a line that I still have not found the proper home for in a short story. I made lists of all the things we wanted to do the summer before she died. I wrote things we made, scores of card games we played, and grocery lists she wrote for me. That notebook is one of my greatest treasures.

She died when I was 17, but not after a long and painful struggle, and myself sitting there and witnessing all of it. After she died, I didn't know or understand how to deal with the indefinable sadness that was worse than anything I’d ever experienced. I took a creative writing class my senior year of high school. The class was taught by one of the most amazing and inspiring people I've ever met, someone I still keep in touch with. In her class, she had us write in composition notebooks. I was no stranger to the notebook-wielding business - this was my jam. I didn't, however, realize what a profound effect being forced to write everyday would have on me. We did free writes five days a week - basically just five minutes of unadulterated pen-to-paper mental diarrhea. It forced me to push out the sludge in my brain and really connect with the deeper, raw emotions that were tangled inside me and my stupid and adolescent, grieving heart. 

The biggest lesson with writing I almost learned too late was that the feelings I had inside - the sadness, anger, frustration, confusion, and fear - they weren't unique in any way. It was how I talked about these feelings that made my story unique, and learning how has been the greatest challenge of all. No one would give two shits about my short story with a protagonist who was sad because her elderly grandmother died. Why? Because the death of an old woman is not a tragedy, and reading a sappy story where the narrator whines and complains with phrases like, "I was inconsolably sad and stifled the sadness with cigarettes and vodka," does not win a reader over. In fact, if you'd like a surefire way to get a reader to immediately stop reading your shitty short story and go find something better to read, pack it full of saying how sad your narrator/protagonist is, without ever talking about why or how or when or who or what they are sad about. 

Writing has helped me to understand myself in this way. It's not what you write about, it's how you write about it; it's not what you talk about, it's how you talk about itWriting has allowed me to actually listen to people, not just plan what I'm going to say next. And I listen to my characters, too, crawl inside them, hear their heartbeat, cry with them, laugh with them, and then find myself in them and write their story (lucky for me, all of my protagonists thus far have been some version of myself). 

Unfortunately, I spent a majority of my young adult life feeling like I was a genius because I wrote things down. Sometimes I still feel that way. But now when I write, I write because I'm trying to untangle the messy wires and memories and make them feel less painful. When I write, I get to see my grandma again. I get to eat oatmeal at the kitchen table with her and play cards with her and hold her close to me and protect her from falling over her oxygen cords and into a coma. Or sometimes, I let her fall. I let her fall over and over again, in reverse, in forwards, in slow motion, in fast motion, into a bathtub, into the ocean, into me. Some days, on paper, I meet up with her after being away for months and she asks me where I've been, turning and smiling at me in a sweater with a sailboat on it.

Other times, more often these days, I rework relationships. When I miss him, I write it out on paper. I get to go back to that ranch, back inside that barn. I get to relive the night that we drank two bottles of wine after shoveling horse shit and hay all afternoon, that night when he undressed me for the first time and whispered in my ear that he was scared, like a little boy, Cass, I'm scared. I listen to my memories and sew what those memories tell me into a stronger version of myself (my protagonist). 

When I write, I get to rethink the fights I picked with him. I grow a pair of balls and kill the crickets that invaded our kitchen instead of waking him up at 2 a.m. to kill them for me, making him so mad he wouldn't even let me kiss him. I unravel the anger I still have, the bitterness that he could not love me the way I wanted to be loved. I get to cultivate a new me, an understanding Cass that accepts what, at the time, felt like cold, stale unloved love but was really just his way of taking every hurt and heartbreak he'd had in his past and putting up a shield to protect himself from being hurt again (and this time, I don't contribute to his pain; this time, I stay with him in our apartment in Northern California instead of fleeing to Los Angeles). 

Writing lets me relive past lives, it lets me drink up the sadness and anger and bitterness and burp up some sort of beautiful conclusion about myself, my life, my past. 

I guess writing does still make me feel important, but it's not that egotistical importance I had when I was fourteen. Instead, it makes me feel like my life itself and everything that has or hasn't happened to me is important. Writing makes me feel alive, it makes me feel okay, and it makes me believe that I can do great things (like heal myself and help others).

May you feel important, in a good way.

1 comment :

Tell me all your thoughts on cats.