Becoming and Being a Writer
She’s suddenly beautiful
We all want something beautiful
Man I wish I was beautiful
“Mr Jones,” Counting Crows
For two summers overlapping with my last two years as a high school English teacher before moving to higher education, I was a lead instructor for the summer institute of the Spartanburg Writing Project.
Hindsight can be a powerful thing, and through that lens, I am not being hyperbolic or nostalgic when declaring that was a powerful transition in my life as a writer: Teaching as a writer while mentoring and fostering teachers as writers.
That first summer, I can still recall vividly working with a beginning teacher (now a dear friend and amazing educator/writer) who was eagerly seeking how to become and be a writer. She shared with me a redneck past (our birth-homes relatively close in the rural upstate of South Carolina) and a deep love of books, reading, and language.
Her prose was beautiful and compelling, and narrative seemed to flow almost effortlessly from her. The writer problem she faced, however, was how to write poetry.
I set out to help her develop a foundational writer move — the form our writing takes is, in part, driven by the conventions we associate with the form. Prose (whether fiction or nonfiction) rests inside a sense that expression is bound by forming sentences and paragraphs.
The poet steps away from paragraphs, remains bound to sentences, and then begins to shape something within poetic constructions — lines and stanzas, how language sounds aloud, how words look on the page.
We set out, then, that summer investigating lination, how a writer begins to think as a poet nested within thinking like a writer.
Becoming a writer, I think, tends to come about in two way. One is by necessity, which is the path for many academics and scholars, and another, by recognition, something in the bones that you either embrace or try to ignore like that same place that itches in the middle of your back.
I am not convinced, however, that the becoming and being a writer is any different for those in either category.
The difference seems to be mostly internal. For most moments of my life since I was in my late teens or early 20s, I have existed and still exist in a continual state of words that want to be formed into something else I will write.
This is an auto-state, not a conscious or even welcomed state. It is a sort of running monologue in my mind that I somewhat meta-think about as recognition that I am writing something.
As a writer and a teacher, I am often asked about how anyone knows they are writers, and this is one of the ways in which I try to explain the recognition, and that this is distinct from those of us who must write as part of a separate calling (again, academics and scholars).
Here is what it is like for me in 2017.
Words and phrases just come to me, often in the hazy transition from sleep to waking. A couple days ago “i bought boxes of sequins and glitter” came to me. It seemed silly and likely just my brain working overtime after a very fertile day of writing a new poem.
I began playing with the idea of “filled to bursting” and that resulting in someone exploding into a shower of sequins and glitter. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of poetry I write, or type of ideas that tends to compel me so I just pecked out a stanza that I believed was no more than a little word game, an insignificant aftershock of more substantial writing:
i bought boxes of sequins and glitter
because you fill me near to bursting
and if i explode
when i explode
it might as well be a party
However, that next morning, a related image came to me as I was waking up — a stanza I quickly typed into the Notes App on my phone and emailed to myself (this, my friends, is how I write, frantically typing into Notes and sending to myself):
covering my mouth
and then wipe glitter from my palm
across the thigh of my pants
as i hum “happy birthday”
Still, this seemed less like a serious piece and more like my writer-brain in overdrive (The National released a new song, I had just received Haruki Murakami’s new volume of short stories), but the monologue continued as I drove to work, my brain slipping into dialogue about driving toward a full moon at dusk with the sun rising and reflected in the rearview mirror.
I began to recognize patterns of size and color, but more importantly, this initial patchwork of seemingly silly words and images had demanded that it was a poem, something rich and filled to bursting itself:
To become and be a writer, then, is about giving into the writerly moment or creating the writerly moment.
Neither is necessarily easy or pleasurable. Being a writer is always a luxury of sorts, and there is little about the realities of life that defer to something as removed from those realities as writing.
Although I suspect this isn’t unique to writing, I can attest to a fact: writing is a terrible combination of arrogance and crippling insecurity.
My foundational moment of knowing I am a writer is that I am a poet; poems simply come to me, demand they be written, and then I am compelled to follow through. But along with the compulsion to write (as opposed to the practical necessity to publish ones scholarship) is the compulsion to have readers, to publish.
Tremendous amounts of time and energy were spent in my 20s and 30s submitting work for publication — mostly short fiction and poetry, but one novel manuscript as well. This Sisyphean adventure wore thinner and thinner, eventually soothed when I moved to higher education in my early 40s and found I was much more adept at academic publishing.
I think I can make this claim while also not sounding arrogant, so I believe I can safely say I am well-published; I also have little trouble finding places for much of my work.
Despite this great fortune (one spurred by the late and wonderful Joe Kincheloe), I routinely find myself deeply despondent, work rejected. I try to move my public work (on my blog) into more formal publications, and despite my resolve to avoid this painful process, I occasionally submit poems to journals.
Writing is a terrible combination of arrogance and crippling insecurity.
With regularity, I hear these words: How do I become a writer?
It begins with confessing why you ask that in the first place. Have you found yourself a writer by necessity or have you finally recognized in yourself the compulsion to write?
Here a fork in the road appears.
If you write out of necessity, my answer is as practical as the writing before you: Create and meet a process and schedule. This is the becoming and being a writer of necessity that really is about meeting an external obligation.
If you write out of compulsion, my answer is much more esoteric.
Give into and create the writerly moments; cultivate them as often and for as long as you can.
Becoming and being a writer is a concurrent condition without a final destination.
It is reading, listening, watching, and thinking as a writer. Eating dinner as a writer. Drinking a pint as a writer. Sitting on the floor playing with a child as a writer. Kissing an intimate’s lips as a writer.
This is the disembodied tyranny of being a writer, inescapable.
It is writing, and writing, and writing — with both the hope of readers and publication as well as doing so without any hope of readers or publication.
Regardless of the reason for the question, this is a solitary adventure in most ways, especially the act itself. And there isn’t a single fun thing about it — although it can be fleetingly satisfying.
Until the crippling insecurity swoops back in, snatches the satisfaction in its claws, and screeches off into the distance.