Or How I Came to Be a Writer Even Though I Didn’t Want to.
Being a writer is a little like having a small stone in your shoe. Perhaps it is inconvenient to stop, sit down and take off your shoe, but you must. Off it comes, a hand seeks the tiny kernel that nags each step. Sometimes you have to shake it out.
Do people choose to be writers? I didn’t. In fact, I tried everything I could think of to not be a writer. In my high school yearbook it says I want to be a film director. I started out with broadcast journalism. I have a degree in performance. I’ve worked in museums, bookstores, libraries, newspapers . . . uh-oh, I see a theme.
It is my blessing and my curse.
Both of my parents were writers. My father spent much of his life trying to pound out a biography on the somewhat obscure poet, John Berryman. The sabbatical year Dad took to work on the book, Berryman leapt off a bridge and died on the ice below. It would have been the opportune time (as much as any) to have a Berryman biography published, but he never did close the deal. Years later, clearing out my father’s office, I found filing cabinet drawers full of research on Berryman. When I asked him what to do with it, he wrote on a notepad– cancer having robbed him of speech– “Pitch it.” I did not.
I carry it around in boxes, instead, a cautionary tale as heavy and solid as a bowling ball. Many bowling balls.
My mother’s writing time was sacred. One morning, my sixteenth summer, I had a bad fall from a horse. As I regained consciousness in the cool netherworld of the ICU, I saw her sitting there. My first cogent thought was to feel guilty that I had interrupted the writing time.
I had seen from the cradle what a writer’s life was like and it looked like lots of work for little glamour and I wanted no part of it.
The problem was that I kept falling into writing, the way one might stumble into a ravine. I was supposed to be studying radio and television at the University of Florida but I when I went to register for Freshman English I signed up for a senior level creative writing class with Harry Crews instead. No one said I couldn’t.
Harry derided me when I said I didn’t really care for a story by Kafka. But then he discovered that I was the 17-year-old daughter of one of his former colleagues (“Well, how the hell is he? We were the dearest of friends!”) and after that he treated me with considerable kindness. Like you might treat a kitten. A kitten that had a little talent for writing. I miss Harry.
It was no surprise to anyone that I didn’t last in my chosen major. I did get to do a stint at the Independent Florida Alligator before I left. It might have been the only “student” newspaper in the country that was a mid-market daily: becoming a journalist by the seat of one’s pants. I wrote on the side, because writing was like breathing. Just something I did. Short stories. Record reviews. Interviewed bands every weekend. Met the Rolling Stones. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to Be. Or do. I thought about learning to play bass, be in an all-girl band.
Instead, I wrote my way into Art School in Boston and wrote throughout Art school and somehow ended up with a degree in Performance Art. Other students asked if I realized how “text heavy” my installations were. Audiences were often speechless when the performance ended. I don’t know what that meant.
After college, I got a job as a buyer for children’s books, no writing involved. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to Be. At home, when it was quiet, I counted syllables and built poems. I read The New Yorker. I started sending them poems, which they politely declined each and every time. That was okay, I didn’t want to be a poet anyway. Did I?
My mother suggested a writer’s conference with the poet Howard Nemerov. It was in her town, could I get the time off? Well, I probably could, but The Poet was going to choose his students on the merit of their work, so let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, I said. I probably wouldn’t get in. I did get in, one of seven.
I confessed to Howard one afternoon that I didn’t think I would ever be a “real” writer.
“Too late for that, my dear,” he said lugubriously. “You’re about as real as they come.”
Well, perhaps I could be a poet then. Perhaps I was a poet. I read books of poetry and went to readings and kept sending thick brown envelopes to The New Yorker and getting thin blue ones in return. They didn’t care that the U.S. Poet Laureate thought I was already a “real” writer or not.
And then it happened.
It was as if I’d walked along the beach. I was quite certain that I didn’t want to get in the water. Well, okay, I might wade along the shore a little bit, picking up the odd shell or bit of driftwood. The water is refreshing, so perhaps I’ll venture out a little further. Now I am in it up to my waist. It is starting to carry me a little. I can splash around a bit, it’s almost like swimming. Eventually I choose to slip beneath the surface, and swim. Like Eliot’s mermaids, riding seaward on the waves.
I never did decide to Be a Writer. But when the story is in you, it must come out. Over the course of a thousand poems pecked out on an old Royal typewriter; and books started and never finished and literally millions of words lined up one after the other and forced to march along in some kind of cohesive fashion, it happened. I found my voice finally. Not a poet. Not a novelist. I write non-fiction. I am lucky that sometimes people even pay me to do so.
Essays. Profiles. News stories. Posts. Some come easily, practically writing themselves. Others, like this beast, hang around my neck for days at a time. You never know when you start which will be the problem children. Some stories compel me, haunt me, demand to be written. Often these are stories about crime, and this is a large part of what I have written about for the last twenty years. Hobbled by the limitations of deadline and column inches, conventional newspaper accounts often leave most of the story untold. The tenets What-Who-How-When and Where are usually all the reader gets, and even then “Who” is little more than a name, age and gender.
No one even attempts “Why”.
Writing about crime has meant sticking my neck out. Way out. It’s one thing to write poetry in a quiet room, pulling the rhythm from your own drummer. Writing about crime leaves you vulnerable– not just to the wrath of the criminal (which is not insignificant) — but to an insidious malaise. When most waking hours are spent poring over the minutiae of a terrible event, of creating a portrait of the victim, of examining the unanswerable “why”, in time it feels like your very soul is being sucked right out of you. When you hold the mother of murder victim in your arms while she sobs, there is a price for that. After awhile, I couldn’t do it anymore. Oh, I still make notes. I still follow threads and even draft outlines. But I think that chapter might be done.
That only leaves everything else to write about, thousands of stories left to tell.