I Write To Be On Stage

When I started kindergarten, I was so shy my teacher doubted whether I knew how to speak the first month or so—until the day she found me sitting in a corner reading a book to a group of my pre-literate peers. She told my mother this one day, and my mother told me.

I recall later in my kindergarten career an incident that very much confirmed my ability to speak. I remember running out of the classroom after a little girl who’d left with a bathroom pass. “You doodoo!” I shouted after her in the hallway just outside the door. Now, I didn’t care for this particular classmate who mocked me for being strange, but I cared very much for the laughter and shock my outburst garnered. I had to go stand in my designated tote bag cubbyhole for awhile afterwards, and I remember feeling kind of like a rock star.

This is why I write–this tendency towards extremes, this love-hate affair with other human beings. I can be catatonically shy and silent, or I can scream and shout and throw myself to the lions for the pleasure of my classmates. I like to sit alone in my room and think, using words as a way to connect with the universe as a whole rather than with any one person. I also adore being the center of attention in a roomful of people. I need only myself and an abstract idea of others. I need the explicit, immediate approval of others. To me, this is the impulse to create any art—not just writing. Until my 30s, interacting with other people was somewhat painful for me unless I was on a stage of some sort. Unless I was inside the freedom of a story, I was creating either on a page or in the flesh. Writing is the ultimate stage.

Over the decades since kindergarten, my shyness gradually lessened.  As it did, my exhibitionism increased to the point of doing things one wouldn’t expect from an educated, middle-class young woman.  I regularly sought out extremes in emotion and experience—giddying highs and crushing lows most people would find uncomfortable. You might even say I crossed over into clinical manic depression for a time in my 20s and early 30s. Or you might say I was just an impulsive-yet-introverted thrill seeker. I’d stay up all night writing poems and stories seething a desperate energy, but they lacked focus. I was all over the place geographically and psychologically, moving to millennial New York City, dot.com-era D.C., go-go Dubai, post-Katrina New Orleans…

I wrote some for my day jobs, but it was mostly what other people wanted me to write—not what I wanted to write. It’s only now in my 40s that I have enough stability (or I might say “loss of life force,” depending on my mood) to wrestle what I’ve seen and done and imagined into a coherent message of my own. I’ve always had something of my own to say. It just took a very long time to learn to package it into something others would understand. It took at least temporarily giving up the idea of earning a living from writing so I could move where I wanted to be (New Orleans), learning to talk to and work with other people without having to perform all the time, and becoming gravely disciplined with using my free time to write creatively.

The gathering decades of psychological vagrancy are over, and the refining decades have begun. A scream shattered the silence, then softened into conversation. I’m in one spot, and I’m working with a singular goal. I’ve largely stopped “acting out” and have learned to speak up instead. Ironically, it was learning to just talk to other people that got my writing where I want it to be. I had to learn to talk to really write. I no longer use writing as an emergency connection to the outside world. I use it now to tell others about what it was like to be trapped inside. I still love feeling like a rock star.