Friday, October 17, 2014

Why I Write: Origins

Growing up, everyone dreams of the ultimate fantasy career that he or she believes will make life perfect: police officer, firefighter, actress, singer, athlete, professional gamer, you name it. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian before I learned I had a phobia of needles and fainted at the sight of blood. For many years I dreamed of becoming an astronomer and studying the planets, possibly discovering a new one and naming it after myself, but after five weeks in high school physics I laughed at the idea and dropped the course. Combining so much math with science was like listening to Spanglish: I could never keep up with which subject we were focusing on. Fortunately, writing pulled me in and whacked me over the head a few times to let me know that I was born to work with words. I may be a young writer, but my writing origins spanned eight years, starting with the preparation for the Writing TAAS Test, meeting the Texas Poet Laureate, and hearing the greatest advice I’ve ever been given.

Exit Exam

The TAAS Test was Texas’ version of the standardized testing on public school children and teenagers, and it just so happened that I was decent in every subject. It changed into TAKS and then STAR, and I believe now it’s simply SUCK, but I digress. I always passed the mathematics, science, reading, and social studies exams with ease, but in fourth grade they introduced the Writing TAAS Test. I wish I could remember how I felt about the taking the test, but the truth is that the event was, well, uneventful until my teacher, Mrs. Bush, pulled me aside and asked me to miss recess to rewrite my practice story.

A ten year-old, miss recess? I do remember how I felt about that: pissed, and I couldn’t even say pissed yet without getting a spanking from my mother.

Mrs. Bush asked me to rewrite my story because it had been so detailed, so full of conflict, and so intriguing that she wanted to see a revised copy. Up until that point, I had been an avid reader and the librarian recognized me whenever I walked down the hall. The idea of writing my own story had never occurred to me, and suddenly it made so much sense for me to write one. Granted, it technically wasn’t mine; it was fanfiction based on Julie’s Wolf Pack by Jean Craighead George, the greatest children’s author who has ever lived. I rewrote the story, got bumped up into Honors English, and was praised from then on out for the immense amount of details in my creative assignments.

Me, a ten year-old, be a writer? The idea had never crossed my mind, and suddenly it consumed my thoughts, reading time, and homework hours. I may not have known much at ten, but I knew what dedication meant. If not for Mrs. Bush telling me my story was good, I might not be where I am now: writing at my kitchen table on a laptop about writing. So, thanks.

2010 Texas Poet Laureate in 2009

Fast-forward seven years, and I was still the Writer to my peers but walking down the hallways as a senior instead of a fourth grader. At that point, I had written two novels, half-written two more, and finished dozens of poems, songs, and short stories. I wrote poetry as a therapeutic, diary experience rather than for publication, but I think we’re always surprised for what life decides we should be recognized. Karla K. Morton had just been named 2010 Texas Poet Laureate and hosting a Little Town, Texas Tour of the state, visiting schools and libraries to collect the best poems and artwork relating to our cities. To be honest, I thought it sounded lame, but then again I’ve never met a seventeen year-old who loved and defended their hometown.

Part of the poster that plastered my high school, featuring Karla K. Morton.

My English teacher, Mrs. Bufkin (I’ve got a thing for English teachers with B-last names apparently), required her classes to submit a poem for a grade, and then she would select the five best and enter them in the contest. I threw together a poem about the weather because I wasn’t yet feeling my hometown glory (Adele reference, anyone?) and turned in my poem. A week later, Mrs. Bufkin announced her choices and said we would find out the winners in a few weeks.

My poem was chosen for her class representation, and I was excited. What shocked me, however, was when Mrs. Bufkin approached me weeks later and whispered that I placed third in the school and would read my poem aloud at the contest announcement. I felt terrified. How could I read in front of a crowd? There must be a way out of this. I sung through the halls. I got third place! Did the judges forget their glasses? Well, I'm so glad they did! Then I went back to terrified. Unfortunately, there wasn’t too long to wait to sort of my feelings (for a full account of the night, check out this post). I walked up the stairs in heels that were too large, read my poem, and hugged Morton on my way off the stage. Some other students read and presented art, but I heard very little after that.

I had written words, and someone liked them enough to be heard, someone who wrote so well others wanted to hear their words. I still get giddy, and I probably always will. I think that’s okay. *inner ten year-old screaming*

Four years later--all the poems were published! TCU Press :)

Dad’s Advice

I hate advice because the next move always seems obvious and rational; it's just that it's too difficult to do at the time, but the best advice I ever received was advice I didn’t even know I needed until my father said it.

My freshman year of college, I thought I knew it all. I so did not. I went to an Open Mic Night at the local coffee shop where my friend and I were surrounded by graduate creative writing students, who had been published in actual literary magazines, websites, and other mediums I didn’t even know about. I had my three poems, all about one page, and one young woman read a twelve page poem about how the bricks in her trunk each had her ex-boyfriend's name on them for twelve different purposes. It was inspiring to listen to her, in an intimidating sort of way. Despite the great writers, I just wanted to be flung into the adult world and have my say.

We stayed for two or three hours, and two people stood between the microphone and my freshman words. Just when the chair below me squeaked under my constant leg shaking, my friend’s mom called and said we had to leave. No, I can’t leave. I’m about to speak, and show all these grad students I’ve got guts, if not a little talent. I said none of this, argued only with my friend, and climbed into the car. I cried to the window, angry at fate rather than her parents because I knew they had work, but what if I never got another chance, or I couldn’t work up the blind, stupid nerve I had gathered?

I thought I was letting my future waste away.

They dropped me off at my dorm 600 miles from my parents’ house, and I did the only thing I knew how to do, the only thing I still know how to do: I called my mom and cried. She did her best, just thankful my tears were from disappointment and not from a grabby stranger, but she was ill-equipped to stop the overflowing because I was too stubborn to accept that this was how it had to be in that moment. My mom gave up and handed the phone to my father, who was having a miniature panic attack because his daughter was upset and he didn’t have someone to knock out in retaliation. He simply gave me advice.

“When the world is ready for you, you’ll be ready for the world.”

I believed it. I vowed to go back to that coffee shop and read my poems in November! I never went back, and I never regretted staying behind. My writing wasn’t up to par, and I go through days when I still question that. His advice shone like a beacon, reminding me that life was only trying to slow me down rather than take me down. *inner ten year-old pumping a fist to the sky*

"When the world is ready for you, you'll be ready for the world."

This “Why I Write” focuses on the three Origins that gave me hope, faith, and trust in writing: hope when I wrote good stories at ten, faith when I was recognized by an esteemed writer at seventeen, and trust when advice reminded me that I would always have the chance to be great at eighteen. I write because life has been pushing me in that direction for twelve years, and they have been the most miserable, frustrating, and thrilling years of my life. Life gave me these early memories to keep by my desk, helping me to keep writing without getting in over my head. They’re like my invisible critiques or peer reviewers. I may doubt my ability to survive the writing trek every couple of years, but that only makes the successes that much better. If not for these early childhood memories (and being eighteen and living on your own still puts you in childhood), my writing would not have grown into something that could prop me up and support me.

So, thanks. *inner ten year-old beaming*

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