Courtesy Interlochen Center for the Arts
I wish I could tell my high school self: keep doing exactly what you’re doing.
I began writing when I was a wee little kiddo. I started out writing songs and making up scripts to act out with my siblings. My mom came up with this amazing stage name for me, but that will die with the both of us. Then, in early teenage years, I tried writing romantic fiction (you know, what all teens try to write when they are starting to feel feelings for the first time). That didn’t last long because I tried to rewrite Twilight once, and then I was out of ideas. But there was a trend, you know? I was using writing as a tool for understanding the world around me. I was gaining ground to becoming a writer of some kind, I just hadn’t found my niche, yet.
So I went to my high school guidance counselor and begged for help. I asked to be put in any class where I could write creatively. Sweet old woman that she was, she dug in the course catalog and fished out a class that hadn’t been taught in over ten years, but still technically existed. It was labeled Creative Writing. Good enough for me. I spread the word. The class met its headcount, and it was resurrected.
Ever since I was little, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. To me, teachers were some of my favorite people growing up, both in real life and on TV. When I got confirmed during my freshman year, my seventh grade English teacher was my sponsor. When I think back to my childhood, Ms. Frizzle and Mr. Feeny are as much ingrained as my mother and father. When it comes to writing, I can’t imagine one day not teaching the next generation about the thing that I love so much, which is storytelling.
If I were to be teaching a writing class right now, the most important thing that I would want my students to get out of my class would be to allow themselves freedom when it comes to the page. From middle school up until halfway through college, I never allowed myself to be true to who I am when it came to writing because I was afraid of embarrassment. Throughout that entire time, I wasn’t writing at all, save a few terrible poems I wrote for a boyfriend that I repressed the moment that I gave them to him. The idea of writing something bad that it felt like the whole world would read, terrified me. That fear kept me from pursuing something that I really enjoyed just because allowing anyone to see into my brain mortified me.
As a pigheaded writer and a person who hates being told she’s wrong, criticism can be a hard thing for me to swallow. I’ll admit that I’ve gotten better over the years at accepting advice and criticism, but there are some days when I can’t find it in myself to accept whatever you’re telling me. I found myself in one of those situations recently when a professor of mine tried to be helpful during a conference.
So this conference I was in counts as our midterm. He counts the amount of pages we’ve written and tells us how we’ve improved and what still needs work. Normally, I love these types of meetings. I get praise, and I get help with my writing! But as I sat down in the world’s oldest, most uncomfortable, ugliest-orange chair, my professor didn’t have any words of wisdom. He told me to keep doing what I was doing.
I laughed right in his face.
At this stage in my career, I definitely consider myself a poet. The simplicity of being able to articulate my every day emotions, the stresses of day-to—day life and the hopes I have for the world and myself gives me a sense of liberation, a feeling of relief almost. To articulate the music I hear and to be able to briefly let my heart bleed on the page, with as few lines as possible gives me joy, the ability to use beautiful metaphors and to leave a scar on my reader, while delicately crafting an overall image, which can have the potential to leave them with a lasting emotion feels graceful. Poetry gives me the initiative to figure out what ever “it” is on the page, without constraint. But, allowing myself to venture into using other forms has broadened the scope for being able to reach as many readers as possible.
Considering that everything is relative, especially art as well as the process of honing your craft, there are many famous writers whom we know that tend to “blur” the lines and have achieved much success: Tennessee Williams, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin. Writers like Sarah Manguso, for instance, when asked in an interview in Punctuate’s first issue—“How important are labels to you in your work,” in regards to making a distinction between her poetry and nonfiction, she replied, “They’re not.” There are a myriad of writers that can be discussed, even those who don’t hold the same level of notoriety of those previously mentioned; and by no means am I making a comparison, but I feel we as writers should not necessarily focus on form, before we consider writing a piece. We should allow ourselves as writers to write in the direction that the “work” itself needs. Although I tend to be more poetic in form, not all of my work calls to be confined into that particular form. Sometimes I need to distance myself from a particular issue, and so I plant the seed into an unwilling character and attempt to answer my own questions within the confines of a fictional situation, or I need to deal with a nagging on my memory and I choose to self-reflect on the page.
Last week, an article in the New York Times described the opening of a time capsule that had been placed in a monolith in the town square fifty years ago by the children of the city of Cherepovets, Russia (then the Soviet Union). The occasion of the placement of the capsule was the fiftieth anniversary, in 1967, of the Soviet Revolution, with the expectation that its message would be read aloud by the “Comrades of the Future” on the one-hundredth anniversary of the USSR in 2017. The message read in part, “Stay true to Communism’s ideals, and fearless in the fight for welfare of the working man.” The fact that this month’s ceremony occurred almost two decades after the fall of Soviet Communism did not diminish the solemnity of the event. On the contrary, Matthew Luxmoore, the author of the piece, writes that this message “Elicited not a single smirk.” Indeed, the current residents of Cherepovets replaced the message from 1967 in the monolith with one of their own, boasting of their historical importance and current industrial production, that would have made Stalin smile. For a vision on our future, we need only look to the past.
This month, we at Punctuate are celebrating the first anniversary of the publication of our first print issue with the publication of our second print issue. Among the features in our online offering for November is an interview with novelist Shawn Shiflett, whose autobiographical novel, Hey, Liberal! is set in Chicago in the months following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. In her essay, “What to Eat When You Are Rich,” Japanese essayist Kaori Fujimoto looks back two decades to the lean years of her twenties in New Mexico. Paula Carter reflects upon her memoir No Relation about step-families and lost relationships in an interview with Sadaf Ferdowsi. And, on our Semi;Colon blog, assistant editors MacKenzie Trowbridge and Ishah Houston opine on the writer’s self and her perception in the world.
Ian Morris, Managing Editor
They tell us to “write what we know” and if the we in this story is like me, we will laugh because our lives are boring. What could we say that would be worthwhile? We will know, on the inside, that this advice is not meant to be taken at face value. We won’t keep this in mind when we write frantically in our journals about the things we cannot say. There are things we might like to say, but won’t. It’s all been said before.
If the we in this story is like me, we will read a piece in McSweeny’s begging students to write something, anything, other than their own experiences, and we will laugh because it will be true. When taken literally, we’re told to write about school field trips, struggles with friendships, and failed first loves. These will not be interesting stories.
We will know that there are people in the world who’ve faced war, dying mothers, identity struggles, chaos, trauma. We will have classes with these people, be friends with these people, know them intimately. But we will not be these people. We will only have struggled to break away from the faith of our youth, and cried too much in therapy because we never got over our fear of being judged. We will worry if our resistance to writing what we’ve lived will be more of that fear, but we will not write it, except for now.
Like most artists, I was very introverted in high school. Despite dealing with my mother dying from cancer, having serious hormonal issues, and not being born into a middle-class family like most of my peers, I tried to assimilate somehow. Who am I kidding? I couldn’t blend in even if I was a chameleon in the rainforest. I was one of the tallest girls in my class. My hair was long but the hair on my body was longer. I didn’t have new outfits to model every day. I didn’t go to school events or birthday parties. I didn’t have parents to come to meetings. I hated gossip. I didn’t drool over the boys in the hallways. I sucked at sports and singing (which is what our school was famous for). Basically, I was a bully’s paradise.
The one talent I had was writing. I knew I wanted to win the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature like Toni Morrison or become the first female music mogul but my low confidence made me lose my appetite to fulfill my dreams.