I think I’ve finally discovered my problem with writing…or at least what caused my problem with writing…
Let me take you back. When I talked about my life, I thought it was normal. Overly normal. I thought everyone worked summers in factories and shot beebee guns by firelight and wore patched jean jackets. NORMAL.
The Great Joe Mackall
When I went to college at Ashland University, magic happened. I somehow wound up in the English 101 class of Dr. Joe Mackall. His first assignment? A personal narrative about whatever we wanted. So on a hot August night in my dorm room, I sat down and wrote about attending a KISS and Aerosmith concert–about how the grass felt on the lawn that night, cool yet sticky. About how I somehow felt a kinship with people I didn’t know, and people I’d never really know, and how I felt more comfortable in decades prior to my time than in my own time. I wrote about the chains that bounced off my hip as I climbed the hill of Germain Amphitheatre in Columbus, Ohio, and how I held the callused hands of a boy who kept me at skin’s length even though I wanted more than anything to be a part of him.
I turned in the paper. The next class, Joe kept me after. The humid air had crept in through the windows and the sweaty plastic of the desk stuck against my forearms. I felt like I was suffocating. “What’s your major?” he asked.
“Undecided…but leaning toward education?” I half-asked. Was there a right answer?
“No. Creative writing. You have something here,” Joe said. Apparently there was. When I left Miller Hall that day, two weeks into my college career, I felt like I had direction for the first time. The flowers were brighter and the sky was bluer, and I felt like Joe had uncovered a part of me that I didn’t even know existed, like he had peeled back my own calluses and exposed a raw, undeveloped part of me.
As with any “new skin,” this part of me was sensitive. I babied it, wouldn’t fully walk on it right away. It was an odd sensation, having someone believe that what I had to say was worth something, that my insights meant something. That my story was one that people might want to hear.
I spent many nights at the computer, my chair tilted back on two legs, trying to find my reality. Reality. It felt so foreign then. It felt like a thing of value.
All through college, I pecked away at my keyboard. When I couldn’t write, I turned on Metallica, turned off the lights, and hung upside down on my futon. I tried.
Four quick years later, I was getting ready to graduate when Joe asked me, “What do you think about grad school?”
I shrugged. After a barrage of questions from my mother about what the hell I was going to do with a Creative Writing degree, I decided that grad school would only be a waste of money.
“University of North Carolina at Wilmington. You should apply. A friend of mine, Philip Gerard, is down there. You’ll learn a lot from him,” Joe said.
So I applied. I got accepted. I didn’t respond until they started calling me and asking me what I was going to do. I decided I wouldn’t take it without a teaching assistantship, and the next day, I got the assistantship. So in August of 2007, I moved to North Carolina with a fire in my hands to write. I had managed to keep the skin that Joe revealed open–vulnerable, yet livable–everything that a writer should be. Because if a writer is not vulnerable, are they really a writer?
The truth was that Philip Gerard was wonderful. I felt comfortable with him much like I felt comfortable with Joe. I felt that I could learn something from them. But, as I’ve mentioned, I could never fully enjoy grad school because I’m not sure I ever fully acclimated. The place itself was wonderful, minus the humidity, and I ran into a few great people. But most of the people there ruined it for me. Remember that time I said “gypped”? With everyone trying to be so politically correct, there was too much sameness. People were letting go of their own identities so not to offend others.
But there was something else. Something bigger. Before I went to North Carolina, I found beauty in everyday things. I saw beautiful, wonderful creatures in the people I worked with at Whirlpool, and I saw meaning in a dead-end bridge and a four-stroke engine. I lost all that in North Carolina. In North Carolina, I no longer felt like anything I had to say had meaning. It felt like I was too normal.
This may or may not be true, and it may all be my own misconception, but it seemed very much like the only thing that was celebrated in my graduate program was the writing that was “different.” And I understand that writing should be original, but when I say different, I mean crap like the lyric essay. I mean taking so many risks with the format of the writing and the content that it no longer made sense. It seemed like that was the stuff that was praised in grad school. All I could think was, “Oh, you put a sentence four spaces down at the bottom and that space represents the emptiness you were feeling? Shut up.” When it came to writing, I always thought it was the truth behind it all, the crafting of the story, the reality that made it good.
I also suffered from what I call “The Plight of the Happy Writer.” You see, all of the people I went to school with had some huge issue that they were dealing with, either from childhood, an ongoing battle with themselves, a sickness, a something. I felt like I was at a disadvantage (in writing only) because something horrible hadn’t happened to me, because I wasn’t molested as a child, or struggling with my sexuality. I had never been paid for certain sexual acts or had a horrible disease. I hadn’t traveled all over the world and saw the beauty and devastation. I was just an Ohio girl who was realizing she didn’t really have anything to say. And I became wonderfully happy with my lack of traumatic events.
So I let that callus that Joe so easily ripped off grow back over, and I hardened myself to writing. I was surprised that this hurt more than when Joe ripped that callus, and more than the period of my life before I even knew I could write. I was (read: am) purposely suppressing something that came naturally to me in response to something that seemed unnatural to me. I gave it up.
I haven’t been able to write since, but standing in the bathroom this morning while I was brushing my teeth, I saw that thing of beauty reemerge. That simple, everyday beauty that comes from an overused toothbrush and a paste-flecked mirror. I saw the imperfections, the reality of life creeping back in. So I stuck my fingernail underneath the callus to see how easy it would be to lift away again. Did I even want to? Baring one’s soul is not a decision that should be taken lightly.
But until then, I’ll enjoy the bent bristles of my toothbrush, the blue flecks on the glass, the cold tile underfoot, and I’ll keep picking at that callus to see if it’s ready to come off. I hope that it will be soon.