Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Learning to Write

At eleven, I won a district-wide writing competition. First place out of 1,800 sixth graders. I still have the piece. I don't recall the process or feeling of writing it, but I remember the feeling of winning. I felt smart. I felt significant. I felt listened to.

In those days, I sought approval from adults because I didn't get it from peers, and the adults had listened. That flaw of approval-seeking, and others, led down some unfortunate paths. My fears stole that sense of significance while I sought approval in ways that didn't succeed from people who didn't matter. My teens and early twenties taught me harsh truths and suffocating falsehoods.

I learned drawing attention meant drawing criticism and scorn. I learned there's always someone waiting to drag you down. I learned to fade into the background to avoid disapproval.

I learned smart women weren't nearly as worthy as fun, pretty, friendly women (let alone men)--and that the former is mutually exclusive from the latter. I learned you could only be one thing, and that as a woman, smart would always lose. I learned smart women are challenged and belittled, and outspoken women are bitch and overbearing. I learned to shut up.

I learned to only present the good stuff. If it wasn't perfect, it wasn't good enough. And in that case, well, what was the use in trying? I'd never be perfect. I'd never be smart enough or pretty enough or good enough to matter. I learned to quit trying.

I decided I had no imagination, no creativity, nothing important to say, so anything I wrote would be stupid, vapid crap. I told myself I wasn't "inspired." I wasn't deep or insightful or funny. What if I offended someone? What if "they" didn't approve? I didn't want to be wrong. I didn't want people to pull back the curtain and see an imposter. If I made up a story, if I created something, it would be all my fault if it sucked.

After my son was born, I decided to accept another truth. I'd failed to learn all of the things I wanted to teach him: confidence, using his strengths, always being willing to try, accepting failure, to never stop learning, and above all, to never let anyone else decide who he should be or silence him.


At 39, I woke on a cold November morning, sat at my desk, and started writing. It wasn't perfect—good grief, the suck reigned supreme—but I wrote for sixteen hours. Why? It wasn't some supernatural, angels-singing moment of inspiration or a lightning bolt best-story-ever idea. It wasn't the story.

I no longer wanted to fade into the background. I was sick of letting the fear win. I refused to be quiet about things that excite me, scare me, and anger me any longer, and it didn't matter if anyone approved. I wanted to smash those falsehoods I'd learned.

I have excuses, like everyone. I'm a full-time single mom, and I work two jobs and homeschool my son. I have a house to maintain and family obligations. Health issues abound. Chronic pain cripples me, and painkillers make me stupid but don't alleviate the pain. Just after I finished the first draft, I endured emergency surgery that almost killed me and required months of recuperation. Those things slowed me down, but I kept learning and writing.

I studied art and craft, worked hard, and finished the manuscript. I learned to write well, not just spit out thoughts. I learned grammar and punctuation, those technical rules many disdain. I learned how to write with emotion and clarity. After remembering that I had a voice, I worked on learning how to use it.

Why—how—did I write a novel? I decided. That's all. No magical breakthrough, just a decision to use my voice and speak my mind, imperfections and all. That decision—which I still have to make every time I write—is exciting and terrifying. It took years of fighting fears and searching for confidence to make that first decision, to learn new truths and refuse to accept falsehoods.

Learning to write, both art and craft, is about learning how to connect with strangers. It's learning style and mechanics to create clarity and meaning without losing the story. It's learning to accept criticism along with approval, being willing to have our ideas challenged, and reveling in the fact that the learning is never finished. It's learning to use our voice, and it's never easy.

We all have fears and hopes, and we all need someone we can relate to, who has those same fears and hopes. No matter who you are or where you've been, someone out there can relate. If you tell a story with a message--no matter how simple or trite or crazy that message may seem to you when the demons of doubt rise in the dark hours--and tell it well, it will speak to someone. It won't connect with everyone, and not everyone will approve. But that's okay. It probably won't change the world, but maybe it will change one person, and it will change you. It will give you a voice.

At 39, I learned I have something to say and someone out there needs to hear it. When will you learn it.

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