“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” If a writer writes, but no one ever reads it, is she still a writer? Does getting published make you a real writer? Perhaps validation is as simple as another author, friend, or someone you respect telling you, “Hey, this is good.” But what if I never find an audience, what if I write and paint and make films and no one ever appreciates any of it? Failure, I guess. But even in that worst-case scenario it’s not necessarily discrediting. Emily Dickinson was never published or recognized in her lifetime. No one even knew Vivian Maier was a photographer until her negatives were bought at an auction.
I suppose my definition of a writer is someone who cares enough to pen her own experiences, or tries to tell a new story, in order to address a universal issue or emotion. Someone who feels the need to use words on a page to explore herself, the world around her, and her characters’ place in that world.
I took a few years after high school to avoid more school. I moved to North Dakota to follow a boy and, after six months, moved back home to Arizona. I painted a lot, and I remember being at coffee shops with my computer, but I don’t remember actually writing anything. I held odd jobs: An overnight stock person at JC Penney, where no one liked me. Maybe I was too shy to make friends. I sat at an empty lunchroom table by myself most days. A dog groomer at Pet Smart, the girls were just waiting for me to quit. They knew I wouldn’t last. A hostess and a busser at the Cup Café when I moved back home to Tucson. People started to like me better. I started to like me better. A bartender at a hotel, which led to my intimate relationship with alcohol. I had ditched my boyfriend and made friends by then.
I felt better and decided to go back to school. I had some ups and downs. I took things seriously at first, but quickly my attention faded to other things, mainly men and marijuana and my old friend Tanqueray. But that’s OK, because a lot of writers have been alcoholics, degenerates, right? Hunter S. Thompson, John Cheever, Dorothy Parker, and Bukowski.
The point is I failed writing 101. My professor had given me a lot of praise throughout the course of the semester, but my attendance was erratic and attention scattered. She was a tall, lean, beautiful woman who always had her hair up in a clip, strands of red-brown hair framing her face. She expected quality work from her students. It was community college, I didn’t think I had to try too hard. I missed the last class and tried to slip my final essay under her closed office door because it was so late and so bad. She was in her office thought, so I had to hand it to her in person.
“Sorry it’s late.”
She thumbed through the double-spaced papers. “One. Two. Three. This paper is supposed to be fifteen pages, Courtney.”
I thought she was going to throw it back at me. She didn’t. But we locked eyes and while her face saddened, mine brightened. I smile when I’m uncomfortable. I’m prone to fits of laughter and sarcastic remarks, my defense mechanism, as my mom says.
“See ya again next semester.”
I could have signed up for class with an easier teacher, but I didn’t. The second time around I passed with an A+. I also attended and passed all my non-writing courses. She pushed me and I excelled. A year later I saw an ad for a Columbia College presentation in a nearby city. My mom and I went, took notes, I applied, and decided to move to Chicago within a few months. I told my teacher I was leaving.
“She’s going to Chicago!” she yelled down the hallway of the writing department. “Whatever happens, don’t stop writing. You just have to find your audience.”
I was flattered about the yelling, but her words morphed in mind. It’s going to take some time for you to find anyone who actually likes your style of writing. Don’t give up, there’s got to be somebody out there who can relate to your stories. There has got to be some kind of audience for this shit. Maybe she said, “You just have to find an audience.” As in, now you’ll be at a bigger school with a bigger writing program, you’re going to have more eyes on your pages.
It seems I’m always writing something, but I never seem to have the time to put the pieces together to make something big and meaningful. Meaningful, sure, I write at least ten postcards a month. That counts to somebody, but not in a publishing sense, in a broader sense, in an I-am-proud-of-my-writing sense, no. Maybe my teacher was my audience. She pushed me. I tried harder. Sometimes I wonder if she was just rewarding my effort and not necessarily the quality of my writing.
So here I am in Chicago, thankful that someone told me to take myself seriously, but also wondering am I even a real writer?
Courtney Freeh, Assistant Editor