I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure. -Eric Liddell, “Chariots of Fire”
I have always wanted to write more than I wanted to do anything else (with the possible exception of reading). For a different kind of person, a saner, more confident kind of person, the happy coincidence of desire and objectively confirmed ability would have been a clear directive: Do This Thing. Being, as luck would have it, my neurotic, insecure self, I heard none of the praise, and all of the dire warnings about how writing was something “everybody thought they could do.” I believed those who cautioned that the chances of making a living as a writer ranked somewhere between those of being an NBA point guard or the victim of two lightening strikes. I wrote joyously from the time I was in elementary school, producing “novels” on my red Olivetti Valentine typewriter, but as I aged it began to seem incredibly presumptuous even to say aloud the words “I am a writer.” “I write.” I would not have had the nerve to say “I am a stunning beauty,” (partly because it isn’t true, but bear with me) and it seemed equally, ridiculously and pathetically arrogant to present myself as an artiste. It could be a hobby, a parlour trick, but a Vocation was a serious matter and involved cubicles and suits rather than garrets and thrift store clothing.
Into this teetering high wire act of self-examination came my first really serious boyfriend, who fancied himself a writer. He did, in fact, write massive novels that I edited for him as I repressed the knowledge that they were truly terrible. (The guy was really, really hot). They had plots, I’ll give him that, but the dialogue was stilted, cliches grew like mushrooms after a soaking rain…you get the picture. Even my pathological desire to be the girlfriend of this moron didn’t prevent me from arguing over and over with him about whether writers were born writers, or whether, in fact, anyone (him, for example) could just buckle down, apply himself and produce a novel. His key word in those arguments was always “marketable.” He believed (and may still believe) that if you write some formulaic novel that people will read in order to distract themselves from actual thinking, it is “writing” and “marketable” and “good enough.” I believe that there is a place for romance novels, “Sweet Valley High” and certain kinds of mysteries, and that while they are technically “written” they are not “art” of any kind. This was a total cultural and personal impasse; I do believe that “anybody can write a book,” but I also believe that I do not want to read something written for a check and not because of a need to communicate something, and to be heard.
It stuck with me, though, the notion that all that really mattered was the ability to create mindless literary Valium. Taking all of the available data, skewing it in such a way that any little ray of hope was blotted out by the immense elephants of pragmatism, I turned down every opportunity to do what I was born to do. After high school I chose to be a musician, because it was harder for me than writing, and therefore Real Work. After I recovered from that spectacular train wreck and spent happy years as an English Major, I chose not to pursue writing again; I went to law school because it sounded sufficiently rigorous, and, again, like Real Work. My parents, far from being proponents of all things “sensible” and lucrative, always believed I was a writer, and did their best to encourage me to take a shot at a writing life, without appearing actually to be offering advice. I heard and dismissed them in the same way I ignored their insistence that I was pretty.
After riddling my feet with bullets for twenty years, I was unable to write anything other than legal memoranda and the odd preschool newsletter. I had killed and buried whatever that thing was that had made me delight in the words and phrases that tasted like fresh-picked berries and stained my soul with their sweet juice. I was resigned to ill-suited jobs that made other people nod in approval. More accurately, I imagined that they were nodding in approval. For the most part, they were thinking about their own lives, unaware that some odd remark made twenty years earlier about the wisdom of a degree in “something practical, like packaging logistics” had been magnified into The Secret of Life by my misguided mind. I wore suits, I followed precedent, and I turned away from that persistent restlessness that came after reading a really great novel or story. “I could do that,” I would think, and then I would remember that everyone had a novel in her desk drawer, everyone at a cocktail party “had a book in him,” anybody could write, and nobody much was terribly good at it.
Through a series of tiny steps involving great trepidation and shame, I started blogging. I blogged about food, because I was interested in it, and it seemed to be a safe way to write without seeming to present myself as A Writer. I started to write about things other than food, and people liked them. I grew tired of writing about beating air into soufflés, photographing dinner before allowing anyone to take a bite, and competing with the power players in the foodie blogging universe. I was hired to write, first for other lawyers, then by a political campaign, then as a ghostwriter. I was being paid to write. I was, perhaps, a writer.
Forty years have passed since I received the Olivetti Valentine for Christmas, and commenced to write my first epic, “Lacey Comstock, Pioneer Girl.” I still feel that the writing I do in exchange for money is legitimate, and that what I write for pleasure is less so. I have not quit my day job(s), I do not believe that I am the next Donna Tartt, or even that my works will be collected and published, along with a regretful Forward after I die. I still look around in book stores and see that “marketability” rules, and that publishers cannot afford to indulge the writer who spins a beautiful phrase unless the phrases add up to something worthy of critical, if not popular approbation. My eyes are clear, my dreams are in check, and I can honestly say that I have expunged from my mind the image of my name in the New York Times Book Review.
It is, however, my true vocation to write. It takes nerve for me to type those words, to let them stay there, drawing attention to themselves at the beginning of the paragraph, obvious even to the most casual skimmer. I have to let it stay, though, because it really is the Secret of Life for this life, which (barring karmic recycling) is the only one I get. I dishonor my parents, who have believed in me all these years, any sort of Cosmic Organizer, and myself if I hide my desk light under the bushel of stark terror. The next time someone asks me what I “do,” I will look them in the eye and tell them I am a writer. Then I will devalue the proclamation with nervous laughter and seventy two qualifiers, but…it’s a start.