When I was a kid, I wrote constantly. At least, I remember I wrote constantly. I know I wrote almost a much as I read. In second and third grade, I would write page-long essays about my family or holidays, and illuminated the margins with illustrations. In fourth grade, I moved on to novels. I still have the spiral notebooks, laced together at the spine with yarn to make them larger, filled with my meandering science fiction and fantasy tales. From age 9 to 14, I was always at work on one of these novels, the words and stories flowing out of me as easily as if I were reading them.
They all, of course, were crap. No one would publish them, and I never had that aim. Publish one day, sure, but not this novel. This novel was practice. Publishing, at that age, was not the point. Writing was the point. I loved writing.
When I was in 10th grade, I had a nasty woman for an English teacher. She was despised by most, and barely tolerated by the rest. One of my friends made a chart, tracking the weather, her hairstyle, and her mood. All were usually bad. I think I pitied her then. I know I do now.
She was not impressed by my writing. I don't remember her comments at all. I don't remember if she was trying to help me become a better writer -- although I doubt that she was that kind --or if she was impassively grading yet another 15-year-old's murky writing. She did give me the first negative reaction to my writing after 10 years of praise. Because I always tried to please, even if I despised the person exacting pleasure, and because I had to have As or I would just die, I tried to change to meet her demands. Still, Bs and Cs instead of As. I tried again and again. No success. I became so caught up in trying to write the way that she wanted, and so frustrated at my constant failure, that I ended up with my first case of writer's block
Incidentally, two years later, my brother took her class. He and I decided to try a little experiment for which we both should have been expelled. She required the class to write a series of poems. My poems had earned a disappointing grade of 72. My brother, who thought poetry was that "stupid, frou-frou shit," would have been quite happy with that 72. I gave him my poems from that class, and he turned them in as his own. He made an 88.
Meanwhile, I myself had stopped writing unless required. Every word that I put on the page conjured up imaginary criticism. I doubted my ability to construct a simple sentence, much less the more effusive Dickensian lines of earlier years (which I have to say, upon review, weren't half bad -- they weren't half-good, but they weren't half-bad). Worse, writing ceased to be fun and become a chore. Not "challenging," which implies a struggle to attain a higher level, but a "chore," a task thrust upon me with no reward. The words wouldn't fit together any longer, and eventually the stories and the desire to document in a diary my own ideas and experiences or the silly things around me dried up.
In 11th grade, I took a journalism class and regained my confidence in my ability to write. The sparse prose of reporting helped clean up some of the bad techniques I had learned in trying to please my 10th grade teacher. The fun did not return for a long long time, but I seldom again doubted my ability to put words on a page and communicate an idea. I might doubt my grasp of the idea, but I never doubted that I could write out whatever muddled muck might be shifting about in my head. I ended up being a pretty good editor for other people as a result.
I did have a couple of close calls with the doubt in graduate school when two professors gave me contradictory messages. One praised me and my writing and gave me high As on all of my papers. Then, I watched him give an A to a woman whose literacy I questioned based on the work she passed out to the class. (Just to clear up any doubts about potential race or class assumptions, she was a lovely, middle class, native-English speaking white woman who went to the same grade schools as I and a better undergraduate institution. I found out later that she just didn't care about the assignment, so pieced together her notes at the last minute.) That same teacher also gave a brilliant, star graduate student an A-. I would have been shaken to my core had I not realized that, when the situation was appropriate, he based his grades on his desire to bed the student if she was his own, or demonstrate his power to the student's advisor if she was not.
The next professor told a class that my paper was one of two in our course that could easily be published with little revision. The other was written by a student who was universally considered brilliant both as a thinker and a writer, so I about burst out of my skin with pride at the compliment and comparison. Hoping to pursue that publication option, I revised and returned the paper to him for suggestions. He responded that he could not see why he gave my paper an A since it was so terrible. Terribly written, terribly researched, terribly conceived. I did revise it, but not so much that it went from "publishable" to "barely worth reading."
His comments jolted me, and I wasn't certain what had happened. I finally granted that he had his own issues in general, but that my tone (all about my tone, right?) was far too non-chalant for the topic, and that some of the leaps that I had made in my conclusions were quite broad. I was confused by the vast change in his evaluation; but I did understand the problems with that paper. For a few years, this made me hesitant to revise, which made the first draft seem so much more important, which in turn made writing more of a chore on which I would procrastinate. Yet, I still knew that, when necessary, I could write what I needed and write it well.
The fun returned to writing with blogging. No one knew me personally. No one was reading it initially. I could write anything and everything. I could try different styles, forms, voices. The words have been pouring out of me for over three years now (with, of course, some breaks due to time, not lack of desire to write). Sometimes, like today, I can't seem to shut them off.
I never stopped loving words or the way a writer crafts a story, fiction or not. I doubt if I could match some of my favorite writers; but the challenge and joy came in the trying. I even once took a creative writing class back in college to at least try. While the class deepened my appreciation for the craft of prose, I quickly learned that I no longer had those stories to tell. I joked that I really wanted to become a novelist, but the lack of original plots for a story drove me to become a historian instead because, in history, the stories are essentially already there.
With the help of history, my own stories have been returning. They are not yet entirely formed, but they become more distinct if I focus on them for any length of time. I'm going to take a creative writing class this summer to see if I can help them. If I discover that the stories still won't emerge, then I will have the practice of improving my prose that can be transferred here or anywhere else that I would like.
In this whole fellowship ordeal, I haave been transported back 10th grade, frustrated and furious and unable to please either myself or the person demanding pleasure. I feel as if I am being asked to express myself in an alien way to suit someone else's agenda and without my approval. I also feel entirely off balance because their perception seems so different from mine and because I am beginning to wonder if I am delusional about my own assessment of my own writing.
As in 1oth grade, I begin to feel unable to write. I have written and re-written and revised and re-written about a thousand replies to the latest e-mail from the coordinator. Yet, I can't seem to express what I mean because every word that I write down creates a million little debates. "Is that word too strong? Is this word inappropriate? Will that sentence be interpreted as 'angry'? Will this other word derail my point when it becomes a source of contention? Am I dropping a bomb instead of making a point?" So on and so forth. It's an insidious trick, one that plays directly into my million insecurities outside of writing. It's threatening to me because my writing has been the one part of me in which I have the least insecurity.
In general, I'm still not insecure about the way that I write. In fact, I take perverse pleasure in knowing that my words can be "strong," that they can provoke reaction. My words haven't been shut off altogether, as they were in 10th grade. They keep coming and coming and won't stop long enough to let me go work out or grade papers or even go to the grocery store. Only in this specific situation, in this fellowship, I feel like I can no longer write to suit the circumstance. I feel as if I should have all of my words vetted, revised, and vetted again before I can express an idea. I do, in fact, begin to doubt my ability to judge the use of my own tone and the tone itself. In that direction, the words are clogged; but, in general, they are bursting to come out everywhere else.
Perhaps when I use "write" and "words" what I really mean is "voice." Voice is the extension of a person's perception and experience into the written word. In that fellowship, I feel like my voice is being shut down, that I'm being asked to change not just the order and use of my words, but the perception and experience behind it. I feel this because any effort on my part to get beyond the tone to the content gets diverted back to the tone, which naturally makes any correction of that tone more difficult each time.
I think I react so strongly to the request that I change the way that I use words because the words are integral to my voice and to my perception of myself. In my world of self-loathing, writing has been the one thing that I do not loathe. That will change as I change, but only I can determine when, how, and at what pace. When someone tells me to entirely change my voice to meet their own unspecified terms on their own time table, I take that personally, and I find myself feeling gagged.