It's Complicated: How I Became a Writer


I like to picture the writer as bad clichés do. Scruffy, awkward, addicted to either coffee or alcohol. Snapping their fingers and a book or bon mot appears. Or more likely, in an increasingly threadbare jacket and scragglier bead, no book appearing. Type-writer pounding. Coffee spilled on the keyboard. Canned soup. Infrequent paychecks. Who would sign up for this?

Actually, I’m not surprised I signed up for this at all. I tend to complicate things—making too many plans, taking on too many assignments. I’m a girl who dresses like a boy. For eons, humans were something I studied rather than interacted with. I seriously considered becoming a geneticist. Or an economist. Kurt Vonnegut once said you should be looking for writers in the science departments of great colleges, not the English Departments. I think the logic was—I have a brain—I may as well use it.

Yes, I did the obligatory grand, “I have a poem” proclamation as a child to my adoring mother and scribe. It was sporadic and usually late at night, a writing pattern that has persisted, and sometimes I wish I still had a scribe. I started a novel when I was 10. Didn’t finish it. Started a novel when I was 13. And I did finish it, four years later. It took me about a year and a half to realize I was a writer. Which is pretty funny given my habit of proclaiming, “I’m going to work on my novel,” and disappearing into the study for hours on end. It’s sort of like how I finally realized I was a lesbian—I’d been crushing on  my female teachers for years, but never realized what that might imply.

So far I have answered neither the how or why question of my writing habit, which is much the same problem I used to run into writing lit analysis essays—never having a clear thesis. Well, first off, my writing isn’t a habit. The only reason I write anymore is because I made myself start trying to review books, and people started trusting me to review books. So it’s mostly when I have a book to review, or an open mic I see, or an essay prompt that really strikes me. Please yell at me to change that. Thank you.

Why is not a long story. But I do have to warn you it involves Ayn Rand. Feel free to stop reading now, but if you do, you’ll never know why you’re reading this damn essay in the first place. I had an English teacher in high school. This is not a fuzzy inspirational English teacher story. He wasn’t a bad man. I don’t even think he was a dumb man. But he was a blind man. He wanted his quotations cited and his text analyzed. He didn’t want you to connect to the book. He didn’t want you to be funny in an essay. He didn’t realize that both personal connections and humor are essential to good writing and a sign of investment and intelligence. I got a D+ on an essay, and it hurt.

In an inverse relationship fraught with inherent complication, failure perversely encourages me. I love singing and dancing even though I deafen and bruise those around me when I do it. I never got higher than a B on any assignment in a 7th grade art class and instead of being pissed, this made me truly appreciate why art came in so many different forms and figure that since no one liked I what I was doing, I was an actual artist (which is sometimes how I feel as I saunter through the Modern Wing at the Art Institute). And this time, when I got that D+ on that paper, there was something else in play. I was reading The Fountainhead.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the plot of Ayn Rand’s less Republican novel, Howard Roark is an architect. He’s based on Frank Lloyd Wright, which pretty much sums it up. He gets kicked out of architecture school because he persists in drawing modernist buildings and ignoring, nay mocking, the classic styles. He sets up shop and no one expect for a discerning, real few commission his buildings. Eventually, he becomes a thing, his competition melts away while making fools of themselves, his philosophy of radical egocentrism triumphs (this is an Ayn Rand novel, duh), and he gets the girl. This is exactly the kind of thing a fourteen-year-old in the midst of writing a novel who gets a D+ on her essay is looking to read. Now I was not just someone locking herself in the study at 2 am—I was a writer in search of an audience, and my English teacher, who I secretly have never forgiven, a philistine about to be proven wrong.

Lest you be horrified by this whole naïve tale, let me assure that A. I eventually learned how to write semi-academic papers. B. I am politically liberal, and C. Enough other people believed in my writing that my delusions of Roarkdom were not entirely unfounded, including an English teacher who single-handedly made sure I got only the zany, artsy English teachers for the rest of high school, and a professor who convinced me to go to my freewheeling beloved college. Is that how I came to be a writer? Do we still need the why?

Because stories are the best way to illustrate any sort of point—philosophical or scientific. Because I can study humanity and report on my observations. Because I have a grand mythology in my head which occasionally spills over. Damn, I feel like an architect. Or a scientist. Or a sudoku addict, addicted to filling the squares in a puzzle. Except, shit, I have to design the puzzle and its rules and then fill it in.

Told you I like to complicate things.

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