Saturday, August 22, 2009
The Writer Gene
Me in my 'Birthday Suit'
When I was three, my mother bought me a new outfit to wear on my birthday. So I called it “My Birthday Suit” which of course got a lot of laughs that I didn’t quite understand. Those laughs are the reason I remember that it was a birthday outfit at all, instead of it just being some cheesy 70’s outfit my mother made me take a picture in.
Things like that always fascinated me, different meanings for words and phrases. I loved to find a new a different way to say things – double entendres still crack me up. Then again, with a name like, “Merry” I guess they should’ve seen that coming. I can still remember being baffled that other girls with my name spelled it the wrong way. Later, when I realized I was the odd one, I could actually hear the difference between someone else’s “Mary” and mine. People pronounce them the same way, for some reason I hear the spelling.
Erica Orloff often touches on topics of why writers write, why we’re wired to hear and see the things we do. And I wonder sometimes if it’s nature or nurture – I think it’s probably just in us. Another person without the odd writer gene might still have a name like mine and not feel the need to use a blog url like “Happycat”, or to think about it much at all. It’s just what it is.
I love to hear different writers talk about why they do what they do – their answers are often a bit different because just having the writer gene doesn’t mean we all share other outlooks and motivations. It just means the rest of our person found an outlet through words. Some writers swear that the very act of pursuing a career in writing means that there is ego there. Okay, maybe there’s ego everywhere in some degree or another. But there are some who say that they pursue writing because of their ego, their need for attention, their need to be heard and grab the spotlight – so they pursue it through writing because that’s where their surest talent lies.
For me, ego does come in, but not in the sense that I want a spotlight – when my writing veers toward flowery prose that go around in circles and add nothing to the STORY, I know I need to put the ego in check. It’s more about impressing the reader, or more often myself, and less about the objective. And it almost always means I’ve taken myself out of the character.
When I was in high school, I had a number of teachers who wanted to push me toward writing. I was still pretty set on art myself, but I enjoyed writing because I enjoyed the story. And it was safe, because no one knew about it. I wrote an assignment and handed it in to my English teacher and no one else had to know what was in there – but I loved it. I loved playing with the words and I loved the freedom of not having any real expectations on that part of me. Sure there were grades, but I wasn’t particularly worried about my English grade. Then one day my English teacher decided that one of my essays was so good that it should be shared, and she did. She read it to all of her classes, with my name attached, for the whole day.
I wanted to crawl under the foundation, I did. Teachers I didn’t even know were shouting praise at me in the hallways. And all of the sudden there was expectation. My friends hadn’t known I could write, and I didn’t know how to react to the praise. And I didn’t want it. I had a good gig going, compartmentalizing so that this thing was here and the rest of me was there and I wasn’t known by what I did... but more than that, I didn’t want the spotlight, I just wanted to write the story.
The teacher was a really nice and supportive one, and I’m sure she thought that would be a great confidence boost for me. But I wasn’t looking for one really. In my senior year, a different teacher convinced me to submit some of my short stories and poetry for the creative writing competition. I don’t know how exactly she talked me into it, I think it had something to do with the fact that you’d get feedback on the work and that it was a blind judging – so they wouldn’t know who I was. It didn’t occur to me that after they finished judging, they’d have to place the names with the winners. Or maybe it didn’t occur to me that I’d win anything. Really, I just liked the idea of my stories being read. I liked the idea that someone else might get lost in the world I put on paper, might get the same kind of jolt out of the flow of a phrase that I got out of all of the books I read.
Lucky for me, my art teacher couldn’t contain her excitement and she let slip that they were announcing the winners the next day. She didn’t tell me I’d won anything. She didn’t have to. It was all over her face. I ditched school the next day.
A few of the teachers were a little disappointed in me, I know. I just couldn’t do it, though. The thought of my name over the loudspeaker, and pictures and all that... It turned out that I’d placed in all three categories and took the overall prize. I couldn’t have done that. My name over the loudspeaker four times, oodles of praise, egads, I still cringe. I wish I could have explained it better at the time, apologized for missing the big hoopla they planned – maybe I should’ve tried writing it down.
I’m a little more mature now. I wouldn’t ditch out at the thought of accepting accolades, though I’d probably turn red. But it’s still mostly about the story. Not about being a writer, but the act of writing. And the publishing, the goal for me isn’t about anything except being read. It’s why I’m still pursuing traditional publishing instead of any other means. I could write for myself and never show it to a soul, but then it’s incomplete and wasted. I want it read. I want other people to get something out of the worlds I’ve created. There’s the ego, I guess.
How about you guys? Is it nature or nurture that made you a writer? And what’s the motivation? Is it about seeing your name on a book cover, or garnering great advances? Is your writing solely for you, or do you prefer to share it? And when did you know it was the path you needed to follow?