Thursday, March 13, 2014

On Being a Writer

What does it mean to want to be a writer?
Is that something we "want to be" or something we are, in various stages or progressions, because we engage in the act of communicating through written language?

I am a writer. It isn't a question of whether I want to be or not. I am a writer.

I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. Reflecting on my early memories of writing sent me digging for artifacts from the past. I hadn't been through my collection of elementary school keepsakes in a while, but I was 
confident I would find what I was looking for: my very first book. My first 
A nurse?
That dream didn't last long!
"published" work was entitled "Renting a V.C.R." (Copyright 1984). The book 
cover was a late 70's style wallpaper glued to a sturdy piece of cardboard. The 
binding was reinforced with red tape. Mrs. Palmer, my kindergarten teacher typed my words, and I illustrated the story. And, best of all, my book included an About the Author page, penned in Mrs. Palmer's very neat handwriting. 

Without a doubt, it was a treasure.

The treasure of this book—even though I was unaware then—is that it was a gateway. It was a positive experience with sharing my real story with classmates, my teacher, and my parents. They told me: I had something to say. They showed me: I was a writer. And so my identity as a writer began.

In first grade, I wrote simple books. The first grade version of me progressed from word books (written for my baby brother) to longer stories that began to resemble the familiar bed-to-bed tales. My illustrations, while not deserving of the Caldecott Honor, helped to tell the stories in half-page construction paper booklets, too.

In fourth grade, I was a playwright. Or, I was determined to be, writing pages and pages of play scripts and enlisting the help of any friends I could coerce into joining me (which wasn't many, incidentally). I spent hours after hours in the musty basement on a folding chair at the old card table dreaming up dialogue and stage directions.

In my moody middle school years, I discovered an outlet through poetry. Some of my poems were corny and contrived, but others were filled with emotion and became a vessel for expressing inner conflicts, the start of self-discovery.

I didn't write as freely in high school, nor did I write creatively in college. My writing life was far more academic in focus. In some respects, as writing became more prescribed and forced, I did less of my own writing and more to satisfy expectations. My choice to write went dormant for a spell. And, in fact, until recently, I could count on one hand the number of writing projects I've engaged in by choice.

There isn’t a good excuse for why I wasn’t writing. Time, I suppose is the greatest factor. I wasn’t taking time or making time. I engaged in plenty of rich, creative thinking and philosophical dialogue. I constructed aloud and elaborated on ideas excitedly. Yet, that deep thinking is ghost-like, with so many seedlings of writing that have slipped away because they were not captured or recorded.

Sometimes circumstances force development.

In time, two things happened. First, I grew tired of making examples or producing stilted models of writing to share with students in my writing workshops. A writer though I was, I was faking it when leading the writers in my classroom with pristine writer’s notebook pages and snippets of writing I had composed specifically for the lesson but in which I had little genuine investment.

Second, my professional setting and peer group changed. My closest colleagues—those upon whom I depended to bat ideas around or to engage in healthy pedagogical debate—left my school community for different reasons. New relationships are growing and must be built, of course, but I have naturally gravitated back to the paper as a thinking partner. I have turned increasingly introspective and often explore my ideas and beliefs in the pages of my notebooks. I write to engage my mind in possibility, to dream up a new great plan, or to give time and attention to thoughts that otherwise go unattended. I need a way to capture, develop, and refine my thinking, and I can depend on my Sharpie pens and my notebook to be there.
Melissa, Writer, age 5

Today, I am a writer. 

I have always been a writer. I see that, having dusted myself off, reacquainting myself, and allowing myself time to spend writing. My goals need to be developed and may even change. My audience, subject, and purpose may vary. But my identity as a writer does not.

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