“The problem for me is that my odd silly fears generate excuses not to write. I have a wealth of ideas, but I am frightened to release them onto a page, and I can’t figure out why.” That quote is from a Facebook friend of mine, but it may as well have come out of my mouth. I spent many years paralyzed by that very block until I figured out both the cause and the remedy.
I had more excuses than Vin Diesel has expressions (i.e., more than one), but my favorite was, “I’ve already written the story in my mind. Transcribing it onto paper is just secretarial work. Why bother?” Why did this one get more play than “I’m so busy,” “I don’t write for free,” or “I really need a good [space/pen/computer/journal]”? Because the notion that I was a fully-realized mental author assuaged my one true fear: that I wasn’t a writer at all.
Identity is an important thing, and mine came courtesy of a paperback copy of David Copperfield that my mother picked up when I was nine or so. That’s almost 40 years ago, and over those four decades I’ve placed the book into my own hands, the precocious reader in his race car bed. Strip away the self-mythologizing, though, and the truth is that I didn’t read that weighty novel when I was nine. At that age I probably couldn’t read the label on a soup can. No, my dear mother read Dickens to me each night at bedtime, which is a better story anyway, so for my next 40 years I’ll stick with that.
Regardless of who was doing the reading, David Copperfield made it through my abnormally thick head bone. More importantly, the book was my introduction to autobiographical fiction, which is really just creative non-fiction moved slightly to the right. The notion that I could take my own life and turn it into a story both fascinated and thrilled me. I didn’t need the imagination of Isaac Asimov to write a story — I simply needed to tell my story. I sat down at my mother’s typewriter and hacked out my bildungsroman. Given that I was only in the fourth grade, my portrait of the artist as a young man petered out at the end of one typed page.
I carried that piece of typewriter paper in the back pocket of my off brand Toughskins for months, not because I was proud of it but rather because I was embarrassed and ashamed. Who was I to pretend that I was a writer? How arrogant and delusional. That was one inner dialog, but there was another: This is who you are. You are an artist. You are a writer. The two voices battled it out like Fonzie and the Malachi Brothers. Occasionally the Fonz won, but most of the time he fell victim to the Malachi Crunch.
That’s the basic tenor of my childhood, give or take a trauma or ten. I was as sure that I was a writer as I was that I was a boy. The truth of the matter was as evident to me as the dangling bits between my scrawny legs, but at least I had dangly bits as evidence of my gender. My attempts at writing were terrible. On a good day I may have qualified as an average student but there was nothing special about me, and so the Malachis in my head got up to ramming speed day after day, pounding my inner Fonzie for all he was worth.
Occasionally I’d get a good one off, like a blind batter waving his bat over the plate, waiting for a pitch to make contact. There was absolutely no feeling better than that, with the possible exception of brushing up against a boob in the lunch line. “Occasionally” is the operative word, though: Most of my juvenelia reads as if written by a functional illiterate, which it was. Reading those pages reinforces just how strange it was that so much of my identity was wrapped up in the notion that I was a writer.
I was so invested in the idea that I was a writer that when high school ended I took off for art school; after all, if writing was second nature to me, why not study visual arts? Writing and painting — that way lies destiny. I’ll live and breathe art, because that’s who I am.
Adult life happened: adult disappointments; adult obligations; the brutal assaults on identity brought on by a careless world and in some cases even more careless companions. My twenties weren’t a period of growth so much as a decade of demolition. My ego collapsed, my self worth vanished, but one constant remained: I am a writer.
This was the tiny thread I clung to: the last, fragile remnant connecting me to the face in the mirror; the last vestige of the person I’d known since I was nine years-old, dreaming my Dickensian dreams. Those four words — I am a writer — became so precious that I locked them away in a snow globe, which is simply a tired, writerly way of saying that I didn’t write.
I didn’t understand why, I just made excuses, and that brings us back to the top of this article. The simple truth was this: As long as I didn’t challenge the assertion that I was a writer then I had an identity, but what if I couldn’t churn out a story? What if I had nothing to say? What if I was still that delusional, functionally illiterate boy? The cost of finding out was much too high.
The idea of being a writer overwhelmed the action of writing. To never write was to never fail, and that meant that I could cling to that little sliver of identity forever. And so for several years I danced around the problem in familiar ways:
- I’m working on some stuff, don’t want to talk about it and lose my mojo.
- I’m really busy with work and the kids right now. I can’t wait to get back to it.
- The house is just so noisy. I really need a dedicated space.
- I’ve already written it in my head….
The act of writing grew into some kind of supernatural beast, capable of destroying me if I dared even consider it. Depression set in, and my OCD reeled out of control until I neared suicide. I left my house early one morning intent on committing suicide by automobile. All I needed was one sleepy driver to cross the white line while I ran along the shoulder and all of this nonsense would finally be over.
Apparently I live in a town of responsible motorists, so sweet death never came. Shortly after that I got on meds for my OCD and depression. The fog lifted a bit, and I began to write with no intention. There was no muse, no healing, no lofty ambition. I wrote because I wanted to write. It felt good. It felt right, like a dangly thing that was always there.
The pages added up. Some of them were awful, others were okay. Stories I carried around in my head bone found their way onto paper. Some of them were awful, others were okay. The important thing here is this: Nothing horrible happened. I didn’t fall apart. I didn’t lose hold of the fine thread connecting me to my remaining sliver of identity.
In fact, it didn’t matter whether what I wrote was good or bad: The more I wrote, the better I felt about myself. The Malachi Brothers grew fainter and fainter, and my inner Fonzie took over. Writing consistently took the process out of the realm of muses and magic fairies and into the real world of work, and there’s nothing to fear about work. I showed up every day, I stacked the lumber, and I watched the pile grow and never tip over. The memoir pieces on this site alone amount to over 250,000 words, and I’ve published hundreds of pieces elsewhere.
By writing consistently, I learned that I really was a writer. The Fonzie voice was right and the Malachis were wrong. I also realized that the worst that can happen is that today’s story might not work, but there’s another one to be written tomorrow. If this essay is a mess, my house of cards won’t crumble. I’ll do better next time.
You’re a writer. Don’t be afraid that you aren’t, just do the work. Write consistently. That’s the only cure for your fear, so get to it.
Categories: on writing