Turning 40: Why I Write

At three days away from turning 40 years old, I haven’t been published, and yet I continue to write and call myself a writer. I’m not published because I haven’t ever submitted anywhere or queried an agent. Sure, I’d like to be published some day, but that’s never really been the point for me. The effort required to submit to agents and magazines and to market my work seems like it would sap all the fun out of writing. For me, the point is the process itself. I write because I have to. I have to explore ideas on paper and play with words and get creative. I’ve loved the written word since I was very, very little. Even though writing is an intrinsic part of me and a huge piece of my identity, it hasn’t always come easy. I took a nearly two-decade hiatus from creative writing, something I regret now even though I know I can only look forward. I did this exercise—a history of me as a writer in ten chapters—as part of a class I took and thought this would be a great time to share it on my blog. 


She is standing in a professor’s office. Her cousin has brought her here, her cousin who encourages her to write. The cousin has shown the girl’s poems to all her English literature professors. Most of them wrote her notes of praise, urging her to keep writing. One professor was generous enough to take the time to meet her in person to tell her he enjoyed reading her work. What the cousin doesn’t know is that among the pile of childish poems is a handwritten copy of a poem from TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The professor doesn’t lecture the child or explain what plagiarism is. He merely says that he has always loved Eliot’s cat poems too. Nonetheless, the girl is embarrassed. She never suspected someone would know the poem.


She is lying under her single bed. The springs that hold up the mattress also hold her secret papers and her journal. The journal has a unicorn on the cover and pages of cloudy blue and purple. Each day of the year is numbered. She has read many books about girls who keep diaries and plans to do the same, but the pressure of writing every day of the year becomes too much. When she falls behind and there are more blank days than completed ones, she gives up. It never occurs to her to use the journal in whatever way suits her best. When she is older, she will hear that Joan Didion kept a diary of what she wanted to have happened each day, not what actually happened. This possibility also never occurs to the girl.


She is sitting in Mr. May’s English class on the second floor of the middle school building with 30 others. He has just handed back their journals: traditional black and white composition books. The students are required to write a page a day, five days a week. Mr. May reads them weekly, giving the students a complete/incomplete mark. This seems not in keeping with the point of a journal. What seventh grader will write her true thoughts, knowing her teacher will review them? He has left a comment about the size of her handwriting. It increases too much by the bottom of the page, according to him, as if she is only trying to fill the space and isn’t putting enough thought into the assignment. But her hand is merely fatigued by the bottom of the page, and she resents his implication that she is trying to get away with writing as little as possible. Twenty-eight years later, her handwriting, which she detests, still follows this pattern.


She is in the guidance counselor’s office for a mandatory college prep discussion. The counselor wants to discuss what schools she is considering and what she wants to major in. The teenage girl excels in English, which is precisely why she doesn’t want to study it. What’s the point? She reads widely and often, and has excellent writing skills. She wants to learn new things in college. She wants to study international politics and see the world. Why is this person who knows nothing about her and hasn’t said two words to her before this meeting pushing her toward English programs? The lady is just one more adult who thinks she knows best but doesn’t understand her at all. The girl won’t attend any more appointments after this one. She doesn’t need this kind of guidance. She has no idea that will see the world…but it is English that will bring her the opportunities.


The room has high ceilings, an enormous oriental rug hung on one wall, a balcony overlooking a tree-lined town square, and another wall with floor to ceiling bookshelves with books all written in a different alphabet. She sits at a small desk in front of a bulky, early model laptop. She is living in Russia, one of eight countries she will call “home” during her twenties. She is writing one of her infrequent emails to friends and family about her experiences. She doesn’t save these emails. Blogs don’t exist either and even if they did, she wouldn’t have one. Lucky, her dad prints some of these emails and saves them to give to her when she is in her mid-thirties. Her creative writing fell by the wayside years ago, replaced by research papers about Mao Zedong versus Chaing Kai-Shek, the American political machinations in Central America, and religious wars in Ireland and elsewhere. Later, she will regret the loss of so many memories of her travels and so much time spent not applying pen to paper creatively.


The Victorian era mansion is only five blocks from her office, and she goes there frequently after work for writing classes. The ornate, four-story brick building is filled with writing nooks, window seats, and comfy armchairs. She needs the deadlines and productivity expectations of a formal class. She doesn’t have the self-motivation to write, but when she has to submit a piece for critique, she always gets it done. And she enjoys it. She generates dozens of ideas for short stories and novels, though she has trouble carrying through with any of them. She decides to start a blog. She begins to regret not having studied English literature in school. She would love to get an MFA but already has one Master’s degree and its accompanying debt. This place, the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, offers the next best thing.


She is in a warehouse in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of an even more rapidly growing city. She has come to hear readings from prose writers and poets. She recognizes people from Lighthouse and starts to comprehend what a wonderful thing the local community of writers is. The readings begin and while she is enthralled with the all of the spoken word that evening, the poets really draw her in. She realizes poetry is meant to be read aloud. It’s music. Poetry left her life over two decades earlier, but these poets introduce her to so many wondrous new forms. She tries her hand at writing rondeau and tanka and triolet. The challenge of finding how to say exactly what she wants to say while adhering to the complex rules of the forms appeals to her predilection for following rules and structure in her writing.


The group meets at Innisfree Poetry Café twice a month. She joins them often. Freed from a sour relationship that isolated her from the world and left her dead inside, she now feels energized. She moved into the heart of city and found much to write about. She takes notes on everyone she meets and everything she does. She won’t repeat the mistake of her twenty-two year old self. It doesn’t matter if she never does anything with these notes. The thoughts must be captured. She vows to publish an entry to her blog every five days. This self-imposed rule finally turns writing into a habit. She looks at the world differently because of it, always on alert for inspiration. But it’s also an excuse for why she doesn’t get any “real” writing done. She has short stories and novels in progress that go ignored for the quick gratification of completing a blog post.


In a tent in the middle of a dark forest, beneath thousands of visible stars, she is writing with him for the first time. That night initiates a mutual writing practice. It starts with writing prompts, their responses to which they read out loud to each other. Never in her life has she read a hastily scribbled first draft to anyone. But he is different. They decide to write a novel together and subsequent nights in the tent and days spent traversing the Colorado wilderness on foot are filled with hours-long brainstorms about the depths of their characters, building the tension and conflict in each scene, and how to fix the plot holes. While he doesn’t last, the idea does and she discovers a writing voice she didn’t know she had.


Though she has developed a strong community of fellow writers in her town and meets with them regularly, writing as a solitary pursuit lingering in bed on a Sunday morning is still immensely enjoyable. She loves being under the white duvet, cup of coffee on the table beside her, dog curled up at her feet, laptop open and keys clacking away. The bedroom is cozy, dark, and still. Spurts of inspiration result in several short stories that receive accolades from her critique groups, though she never takes the time to implement their feedback, revise the stories one more time, and submit them somewhere. She’s too busy with her overarching project, her novel. The first one she’s going to finish. She’s immensely proud of it and believes she has fallen into a niche that is perfect for her writing interests and style. She’s already envisioning how to rework a novel she began five years into a young adult novel. But first, when she’s forty, she will get an agent and a publishing contract for her current work in progress.

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