Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Provocateurs

This was going to be a post in the form of a long list of those in my life who, directly or indirectly, knowingly or subconsciously, goaded me toward accepting who I am.

That's right. I'm coming out.

I. Am. A. Writer.

I mean "goad" in the pejorative sense of the word, by the way. Like, as in, "fucking pissed me off with something they said or did enough to get me to act."

I'm learning that you are either a writer or you aren't. The number of published works has nothing to do with it. It's not a profession, but a way to live. You don't qualify your existence with a quota.

You wake up and say "I'm a writer" and then you believe it or you don't.

For a long time, I allowed the well-intentioned (and not-so-well-intentioned) to convince me that writing was for the talented only. Meaning: you were not a real writer until you were published. And, if you were published, you were not a real writer still until you've made the cover of Publisher's Weekly.

Their objective is to discourage you from throwing your life away on such a pursuit. Some do so because they genuinely care, others because they are genuinely jealous.

Did you know that a poll was taken of Americans and 81 percent said they wanted to write a book someday?

Here's what that says to me: most of the people you meet are closeted writers. And when you spring upon them the words "I'm a writer" or "I work at home writing" or "I published my first novel ..." deep inside they are stabbing you with a letter opener.

Your proclamation is as brazen as a slap across their face in front of their family and friends. It exposes their own failings as writers. And in a sense, when they say "I wanted to write a book once" what they are telling you is "If you fail at this - and you will - then I was right in not quitting that job at the bank that I loathe so much."

I'm convinced of this.

For years - well, until just the last couple of years - I never told anyone "I'm a writer" it was always the downcast-eyes, timid "I want to be a writer" revelation.

It started early, this sense of low-self writer's worth.

I think back to the English teachers I had in high school. What a miserable bunch of tweed-wearing, coffee-addicted ass hats.

I had one - ONE - English teacher who publicly applauded my writing to my peers.

Every Monday morning he read three 500-word essays we had written the week before. They could be about anything. He would not reveal the name of the author, ever. And we would sit around and dissect the piece. It was actually a healthy exercise and I loved it. Of course, mine was never read.

Until one Monday morning. He said he was only reading one that day because, "You'll know why when I read it."

Wow we were intrigued.

He cleared his throat and, before jumping in, said "You will read this person's name one day. I guarantee it."

He only had to say the first few words for me to know he was reading mine. And that day has been and always will be my most favorite and least favorite high school memory.

The class discussed it vigorously and the response was overwhelmingly positive. He then asked the students to guess who had written it. He never did this.

They all agreed it was written by a girl (it had a lot of "feelings" in it they said); that it was probably one of three girls in class; and that this girl would win the coveted senior English composition scholarship (we were only sophomores then.)

When the teacher revealed the author, my moment of triumph was abruptly over.

I had outshone, in anonymity, the best so-called writers of the class. The kids who were constantly having their praises exalted by the faculty. The kids with certain last names. The literary and academic jocks of our class. The loudest ones, who participated in every class discussion, who were always witty and shared coffee with the other teachers when school was out.

Boy did I despise them.

For one, they WERE great writers. Their stuff was so much more advanced than many of our own. But I despised also that they were so full of themselves, so arrogant, so self-assured. I was not taught to be that way. I was taught to be humble. What it got me was a back seat to the show, but in my heart of hearts I knew then what I know now: it's not a competition. Writing is not about winners and losers.

My so-called teachers perpetuated this. This culture of literary capitalism in which the cream (see: the loudest and most connected and most popular) floated to the top while the rest of us sunk like coffee grounds.

In short, I hated that writing had to be about "who you know".

My peers that day never complimented me again. Once the cat was out of the bag that this short, timid, wallflower might actually have some writing chops, I was shunned.

I was grateful for that teacher and I still hold him up to be my favorite. Everyone has one, right? His words of encouragement - although they marked me for social death thereafter - had elevated this shy kid out of the mire of pubescent high school angst, if for only a fleeting moment. I was a king and a pauper in the span of an hour.

The pecking order didn't ever cease. The popular kids stayed that way, while the rest of us - the ones with zits both literal and metaphorical - remained huddled in the corner, unworthy.

And into adulthood, I have heard the echo of their footsteps when someone I know says something like "A writer? Wow. But what do you do for a living?"

It has the same crippling effect. Worrying about all those other writers out there who are better than you is replaced by worrying about your friends and family thinking you're a fucking nut job for choosing a Peter Pan, pie-in-the-sky hobby.

They are my provocateurs now. They are the people who have goaded me into throwing a life of 9 to 5 away and jumping into the frigid waters of art with no clothes on. It's hard and numbing and probably the craziest thing you could do. But it is, in the end, what I do. Not what I want to do.

Or what I'd like to do.

Or what I'm leaning toward, when I get a chance.

Not anymore.

I'm a writer. Not the best nor the worst.

I just am.


  1. I am glad that you have chosen to be a writer.
    And your a damn good one.
    You have to have negatives, in order to have stuff to write about.
    Besides, it makes the success you have (AND YOU HAVE SOME), an big "f*#k off" to them!

  2. Put me in the category of the folks with the letter opener.

    I'm also wicked impressed and happy for you.

    Oh, and jealous - don't forget jealous.

  3. Beautiful and moving. The stabbing with a letter opener part made me laugh aloud!

    I grew into my own writing through being an English teacher - I needed to write to understand how to teach, and plus, it's just part of my soul. I always despised the hypocrisy of asking students to do assignments that teachers weren't doing or didn't have a good feel for.

    When I read about your class experiences, I offered up an instant and heartfelt prayer that I treated my students and their fragile growth with more sensitivity and encouragement than you experienced.

    I think I did. I really strove to let students have a right to self-expression and encouraged them to love writing and reading as we love talking, as just something that we humans enjoy doing, even if they never wanted to "write" or go to college or be famous. It truly is enough to write just for the sake of the self.

    You're on a good path, Andy.It's very comforting to think of you getting up every day and sitting at your computer on the other side of the country. Writing. Just because you can. It encourages me. Thanks.

    (and continued accolades to Corrine for her amazing support. The love between you is tangible and inspiring!!)