My writing is the part of me that lives.
Despite hardships, despite obstacles, despite cruel days and lonely nights, writing continues. I’ve done it since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I have a wonderful picture of myself at age 9, jealously guarding a yellow legal pad on which I’d scribbled my most secret stories. Today, I’m much more willing to share my work.
In fact, sharing my work has become critical to my health. I don’t mean sharing in the sense that I become famous or rich from my writing (although, honestly, who wouldn’t want that?) I mean critical in the sense that I can express.
The meaning of the term “self expression” has mutated over the past couple of decades. I think it used to be a ‘60s trope that excused bad behavior and drunken carousing. Then the term grew up, and became synonymous with artists drilling to their inner cores and spilling out onto page, stage, or canvas their inner-most dreams, nightmares, and fears. Today, I think it’s seen as a self-indulgent, useless vehicle for dilettantes, something with little point in the practical world. Public schools regard it as filler; it’s not on a standardized test, therefore, not worth measuring.
But for me, writing is literally expression. It is squeezing out the dark matter swirling in the middle of my chest. It is living outside my own world. It is a hand grasping desperately for a piece of driftwood in a storm-tossed ocean. Without it, I cease to breathe, I drown, I collapse into myself like an imploding nova.
I know this is true because I have tried to live without it. At one point in my life, I decided that it wasn’t practical. I gave up on it; I let myself go under, thinking it would be more peaceful to stop fighting. I became a high school English teacher, and I lied to myself. I pretended that I’d come back to it when I had time. I put it aside like an inconvenience.
I noticed small changes at first. Colors seemed dim. Music lost its appeal. I ate more, as if I were stuffing precious belongings into an antique trunk, cramming in more and more, filling it to the brim and beyond. Then came the irritability. I became short-tempered with almost everyone.
Honestly, I couldn’t give it up anymore than I could give up eating or breathing. I started slowly to come back at first, like a coma patient swimming to the surface of consciousness. I started with small writing exercises snuck in at work. I’d find ways to have my students write poetry, or do descriptions of the campus, or map character motivation, and while they were doing that, I was writing along with them. I pretended it was so I could experience things the way my students were, but really, it was because I had to write.
I felt the stirring. It was right below my breast, perfectly centered, under my hearts and tied to my lungs. The rusted machine started to pump again, slowly, creaking and halting, coughing up dialogue clogs and spitting out synonyms. The moments for reflective thought were brief and few, but in them, I felt an awakening.
Then ideas started to swarm, first in my dreams, but then in my waking life as well. The turn of a stranger’s wrist would generate a whole scenario of romance; a dirty window inspired a tragic narrative of lost opportunities. Snatches of dialogue seemed to cling to me like wet paper; face after face had a story attached.
I started to write again, really write. I carved out time from the mountain of work I took home every day. I neglected plants. I failed to change the fish water. I even eased up on my nine-year-old son and stopped hovering over his homework, making a deal with him that he’d do his work while I did mine, and then we’d play together when he was finished.
I’ve chipped away at the statue of a story buried in my subconscious since that day. It has begun to emerge, and it is so real to me that I walk around my school when I have a spare moment and think of conversations I would have with Anna, the obsessive-compulsive protagonist whom I love and admire and pity and love again. I’ve seen her in my mind, traveling across the country in a borrowed powder-blue Cadillac, and sometimes I see the tail of that car turn a corner and almost follow it to see where it will go. I hear music when she drives.
What writing means to me is all of this. It is a world that is within me, and also without me unless I choose to keep it. I won’t let it go again.