Vol 3, Num 9 :: 2004.04.23 — 2004.05.06
This sentence is an act of faith.
I had to run out from the kitchen to write it. The radio is still blaring; three dead in the Middle East tonight. The water is still running over the heaps of dinner dishes in my sink. I dashed into the living room to flip open my laptop, start up the word processor, and write these words. These very words. I am writing them because I never write unless I’m made to. I am writing them because nothing and no one is making me write them. I am writing. I am writing.
I am writing because I am a writer.
I realized it on the way home from work today. I was driving north on the Beltline, listening to a hammy radio anecdote by a travel commentator. At the mention of her latest publication, I thought how much I’d like to read that book, how much I’d like to read 10 books I heard about today, how I’ll never get around to all of them in this lifetime. I thought about how much better the world would be if books could be taken intravenously, like morphine. You just hook yourself up to a drip, and while you ride the bus, while you sleep, while you make love, while you eat your breakfast, you absorb masterful works of literature. And then I thought about how maybe that would defeat the purpose of books (and of riding the bus, and sleeping, and making love, and breakfast). How I was glad literature—or any art, for that matter—wasn’t so convenient, and why that might be.
The next thing I knew, I had written a paragraph of such speculation in my head and revised it twice. I briefly considered grabbing a grocery receipt from the floor of my car, hunting around in my bag for a pen—I’m driving, remember—and making a note so I wouldn’t forget the idea. And as I pulled into the far lane to make a Michigan left, I knew.
I’m a writer.
I said it in my head a few times, and then I said it out loud: “I’m a writer.” And it’s true.
I have this little file, “good ideas gone bad.doc,” on my laptop. This is where all my edited paragraphs and orphaned sentences, hopelessly incompatible with the essays in which they originated, go to die. I’ll probably never look at them again, much less use them in an actual article. But it’s comforting to know they’re there, that their fate was ctrl-V instead of ctrl-X.
I never realized, until today, that anyone else did this. But apparently, according to the Real Live Preacher, they do. Apparently writers do this. They call their little files different things—“greenhouse.doc” for the optimists, “cemetery.doc” for the pessimists—but they have them. They have them because these misshapen paragraphs, these half-baked ideas, these phrases hindering comprehension, are their children, their darlings. Writers cannot bear to part with their words.
I cannot bear to part with my words.
Except when I can. Sometimes, I get so frustrated with my inability to articulate the most straightforward sentiment that I print things out just so I can crumple them up and hurl them into the wastebasket. Other times, I try to reason with the articles I’m writing. “Please,” I whine aloud, gazing helplessly at the sentence fragments and stilted attempts at humor cluttering my computer screen. “Please get yourselves in order. Please make sense.”
Sometimes I simply stare at a blank page. Glare at it, rather. Usually the glaring is interspersed with bouts of rabid Internet surfing. I decide to take a 10 minute break and check my email, and genuinely believe that when I click on the document again, I will be inspired to write. Two hours later, I’m perusing online vegan cooking tips and an archive of hilarious quotes heard in passing. The document is still blank when I bring it to the front of my screen, and I still have nothing to say about anything, but especially about the topic I’m supposed to be discussing.
This, of course, is when I even fire up the word processor at all. Most of the time, I avoid it. I avoid it like I avoid places where I have embarrassed myself before. Like I avoid the acquaintance who, it is rumored, has a crush on me. Like I avoid someone who I suspect has something to say to me that I don’t want to hear. Something that requires a response. Something that will not let me be.
I have always known that these particular habits of evasion and denial were writerly. Anne Lamott, one of my heroines, is extremely funny and honest on the topic of literary neuroses in Bird by Bird: “You sit down. You try to quiet your mind so you can hear what a character or landscape has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a list of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you have meningitis. Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences.”
Cute, right? I’ve read Bird by Bird a dozen times. I’ve snickered through all-too-familiar anecdotes and vigorously underlined entire paragraphs and scribbled things like “hmm” and “so true” in the margins. I relate to this stuff! But I have never once sat down and written anything because of it.
This, I suspected, was the difference between me and real writers: they all actually wrote. They followed Anne’s sage advice and churned out shitty first drafts and muddled through droughts in their creativity. Oh, maybe they occasionally got distracted by quirky suspicions of terminal illnesses, ha ha—but at the end of the day, they had something to show for it. You have to write to be a writer. I never wrote unless I had a deadline that I would get paid for if I met it or docked a letter grade if I didn’t. I wrote, but I didn’t want to. I wrote because people told me I was good at it. I wrote, but I thought others who wrote must have something going for them that I lacked, namely an actual desire to write. I never wanted to write. I wrote, but I never believed I was a writer.
And that is why NPR is still reporting suicide bombs and corporate scandals in my kitchen. That is why dishes are still stacked up, unwashed. (Don’t worry, I turned off the water somewhere around the second paragraph. I’m a writer, but I’m not an ecologically oblivious writer.) I’m writing these words because I have wild flights of fancy that, for some reason, can’t help but sort themselves into sentences and paragraphs and essays. These words acknowledge that when I walk into my local grocery store at 6pm on a Thursday, I will mentally compose a newsy but warm opening paragraph about neighborhoods and community, which may later turn into a real article, or may live only in my mind for a few seconds.
These words are on this page because if I didn’t write them now, I never would. These words are here because, for the first time since I was a little girl with notebooks full of half-finished stories, I wanted to write for nothing more than the writing itself. I wanted to. These words are brave. These words believe that that, despite my resistance and despite my uncertainty, I can be nothing other than what I am.
These words are here because I am a writer.
Kate Bowman is student activities coordinator at Calvin College and—she can’t believe she’s about to type this—a freelance writer.
Discussion: I am ?
Have you discovered your vocation so clearly that you can fill in the blank: “I am a ______?” If so, what was that experience like? Do you think you?ll be a ______ for the rest of your life? If you can’t fill in the blank, what are your obstacles?