28 October 2013
Why I stopped writing
I fell in love with reading and writing stories at a very young age. I had three favorite stations at the Montessori kindergarten: the reading corner, where I'd stay until they kicked me out, saying I had to do something else for a while; the story station, where they had these little books that you drew the pictures for (or were there already pictures and you wrote the words? I don't remember; I only know I thought I was writing a book); and the station where you got to wash the abalone shell. (That last one is weird, as I despise dish washing.) I remember running in the door after school and showing off to my mom that I knew how to spell big words like hospital and dinosaur. I believe she was genuinely impressed.
I don't know whether I wrote down many stories between the ages of six and fourteen, but I told plenty and devoured at least two to three books a week. When I was ten or eleven and my family lived in Barrington, Rhode Island, my dad would take us to the library every week to get new books. I read all fourteen Oz books twice.
And then, in high school, I started writing my first novel. It was about a group of teenagers who rented a house at Black Butte Ranch for the summer and had romances. Thinking back on it, I find it interesting that it was a contemporary teen romance even though I read mostly paranormal YA lit at that time (anything I could get my hands on by Christopher Pike or L. J. Smith, and especially vampire stories).
In the eighth and tenth grades I was asked to write poetry for English class - the grades I got on the poems were never very good - but I didn't have any formal instruction in creative writing until college. There, I was surprised and dismayed to discover, the kinds of stories I loved to read and hoped to write - genre lit - were not considered "real literature." Only contemporary fiction and poetry were "real literature."
Furthermore, it turned out that successful writers, according to one of my professors, who'd recently published his first novel, didn't remember their childhoods and never dreamed. This was discouraging, as I remembered quite a lot of my childhood and had vivid dreams that often stuck with me. On one of my stories he wrote, "Careful not to get too clever." On another, a short paranormal horror piece that he graciously critiqued even after I'd switched colleges, he misidentified the main message and remarked, "This would have been much more effective as contemporary fiction."
The fiction professor at my second college gave me high marks on peer critique, commenting, "You'd make a great teacher," but it seemed clear that she didn't care for my actual writing.
The poetry professor - an anthologized poet with a decent reputation but whom I'd never heard of - was bored with us; I think he would have much rather been teaching in an MFA program. I remember him saying of one of my poems during a critique session, "I think it's done." In retrospect, I think this was meant to be a compliment, but at the time I didn't know what to make of it.
One evening, I summoned the courage to read a few poems at an open mic on my college campus. It was my first public performance since an ill-advised and short-lived career in high school drama, and it was my first time at a microphone. I read quickly, hating the sound of my own voice in my ears, and hardly paused between poems. As a result, no one clapped between my poems as they had for the other readers, and the applause at the end seemed, to my ears, half-hearted.
My best friend edited the environmental magazine and asked to publish one of my poems in it. I was flattered and agreed, but I also recognized that she was biased in my favor. Still, it gave me the courage to submit a few poems to the college's literary magazine. They were all rejected. I asked my friend, who was on the magazine's editorial board, why they didn't take my poems, but all I got in response was a guilty look that I took to mean, "Because they sucked but I don't know how to tell you that."
And then I went through about a decade where I did not do much creative writing at all.
So why did I stop writing?
A lack of confidence, obviously. Stemming partially from a sense that what I was called to write wasn't considered worth writing and partially from a sense that I was just really bad at it. There was also that whole thing where I hated everything I wrote because it didn't "sound good," by which I guess I meant it didn't sound like any of the published authors I admired. (Of course it didn't! It was my own voice, not someone else's!)
But I think the main reason I stopped writing was not because I lacked confidence but rather because I lacked encouragement. One can lack confidence and still be encouraged to press onward in the face of a few rough starts.
When I first learned how to ride a bike and kept falling off, my mom didn't turn to me and say, "You're really bad at this" or "Maybe you should try a skateboard." She didn't give me a guilty look out of the corner of her eye. More like: "That's okay, you're doing good. I know it's hard. Everybody falls off at first. Just get back on and keep trying. You'll get it. Just keep going. I'm here with you."