The Art of the Word

First grade: the obsession begins.

Not the writing obsession. Not yet. At this stage, before I discovered the joys of storytelling, I simply had to be an artist. Drawing was not just a hobby for me; it was a simulation. I lived in the beauty and make-believe of my sketches, conjuring and holding fugitive a world in which I desperately wanted to partake—the glamor and adventure that a daydreaming suburbanite such as myself was too sheltered to enjoy, or too smallminded to seek and appreciate in the life I had. But that kind of soul-probing would come later, after years of writing and finally asking myself, Why do I do this?

Why do I need this?

With the aforementioned milestone of the first grade, I switched unexpectedly, unwillingly if I had any say in the matter, from drawing to writing. In Mrs. Disch’s class, we wrote sentences like running laps. It was torture—no, too boring for torture. It was tedium, the kind that sent me sulking to the crayon box. Then came a fateful compromise: the booklet! A ray of redemption to the ELA curriculum, the booklet consisted of ten or so sheets of the long paper (legal paper) stapled three times down the left side. Each page had two generously spaced lines at the bottom for the required sentences, but the rest was gloriously blank for illustrations. Thinking myself oh so savvy, I went to town on those booklets, squeezing out a sentence and then coloring it to my heart’s content. Little did I realize that my narrated illustrations had phased into illustrated narratives. I wanted my waxy worlds to spin on and on, which required more attention to the story of it, to the sentences. They weren’t so bad, in the service of the project. In fact, they were vital. Playing God was wordy work.

So I transitioned from artist to writer, conflating the two crafts to the point of using them in tandem, sketching my characters when I struggle to render them in words. Now I’m at the front of my own classroom, teaching English and Creative Writing to high school seniors, and I look back on those booklets as a nifty little pedagogical flytrap and, after all the comfort and adventure that my writing has brought me, a godsend.

I grew up in a town that boasts one stoplight, a grassed-over train track, and an abundance of barns. With woods that range from scenic to scary, depending on the time of day and the whereabouts of the neighborhood fisher-cat, we had all the trappings and small-town sentimentality of a Hallmark movie set, or a Stephen King backdrop. I was safe and cozy in our big, blue house surrounded by rhododendron and rock gardens, but I felt insecure in this unearned (unappreciated) shelteredness. I wanted the world—to trek it, feel it, break my heart over it. The Magic Tree House books were my Bible as I dreamed of traveling to faraway places and meeting strangers with their own stories exchange. Writing provided me more than escapism; when I felt stuck in the slag of mundanity, I wrote for my characters the opportunities I craved.

But with this relief came the slithering insecurity: what right had I?

Lacking travels or traumas of my own, what could I write of any value? Of any weight or truth? The question haunts me alongside the phrase “Write what you know,” which always pricks me to a sweat because what I know, or at least those eagerly available recollections of childhood, is sweater vests and buttered pasta. Fiction lets you pretend different. Your characters take on minds of their own; they are not at all avatars of yourself, or so you claim.

Through all the stories I’ve written, gutted, torn up and shied from, I’ve come to understand that writing isn’t necessarily a passion. Sometimes the passion dissipates, and drafting the next chapter feels like hauling a sledge over lukewarm lava. But the endeavor is an identity, an obligation to the craft and the person that sprang from it.

So, when I questioned the need for writing, it seems I already knew the answer:

I am my writing.