When I was 12, I received a school assignment that changed my life. It was simple enough: write an informative essay or short-story. Let’s see—write an essay. Write a short-story. Essay. Short-story…well, that’s a no-brainer.
So, I wrote the short-story and turned it in, certain that I would get a good grade. What I actually got was mandatory weekly sessions with the school psychologist—and a deep-seated complex that probably altered the course of my life.
See… I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I had an imaginary friend until I was… well, how old I was when I finally gave her up it totally irrelevant, but the point is that my brain is constantly making up stories, and when I was about 10 or so, I started writing them down. I never thought much about it one way or the other until that fated short story assignment landed me in therapy for a year and a half. Suddenly, writing—my writing—was a bad thing. And not just my writing… my thoughts and feelings were suspect. The way I viewed the world was wrong.
When high school rolled around, I found out that I could actually take a creative writing class. You mean that there is an entire class, devoted to making stuff up?? Seriously? My excitement lasted for a grand total of 3.5 seconds. Up until I remembered that my writing got me into trouble. The kind of trouble that consisted of 50-minute hours and being asked, “how do you feel about that?” I spent my entire high school career avoiding all forms of structured creative writing. I perfected The Art of the Essay. I read enough Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky to make my eyes bleed… but I continued to write in secret. I hid notebooks filled with pages of my ramblings, and then had panic attacks when I forgot where I put them. I turned into some kind of rabid animal when someone said, “what are you writing?” And when someone was brave or stupid enough to say, “can I read it?” I said no, but not just no… I said absolutely, positively, over my dead rotting corpse—NO.
College came, and I remembered staring longingly at the CRW course list… I wanted very badly to take them. But taking those classes meant putting myself out there. Allowing others to read my work. Allowing others to pass judgment on what I wrote, and ultimately, pass judgment on me. There was no way that such a thing could ever be positive for me—not with the way I saw things. Not with the way others viewed my work.
I took Family Studies instead. I fell in love with psychology and the writing faded for me a bit. I put it away and focused on becoming a productive member of society. I got married and had a baby. I grew up. Then I received another assignment: Write your life history.
Okay. I can do that. It’s based on fact, no imagination required. Nothing that could get me into trouble. Perfectly safe. I turned in my paper and that was that…
And then my professor said she wanted to speak with me. In her office. In Private. Holy shit. All I could think was that there was a 72-hour bed hold in my future at the county annex and I was still breastfeeding… not ideal.
Against my better judgment, I kept the meeting, ready to defend whatever it was that she found so off-putting about my writing. I sat in her office, stomach twisted in knots and sure enough, there it was--my paper. Covered in notes she’d written in the margins. Undoubtedly marking the place she found most upsetting. I waited for the white coats to jump out of her filing cabinet and take me away. And then she said something I’ll never forget:
“Have you ever thought of pursuing writing as a career?”
I stared at her like snakes where falling out of her mouth but I shook my head no. No, I had not.
She gave me my paper and said, “Well, you should.” And then she gave me a letter of recommendation for a creative writing scholarship.
I took both and quickly left her office, unsure of what had just happened… had she actually suggested that my writing was good? I spent the next few days in a confused stupor. As impossible as it seemed, judgment had been passed and it had been favorable.
… I wish I could say that that one teacher’s praise had been enough to erase years of self-conditioning but it wasn’t. I threw the letter away and hid the paper in a box under my bed. But… every once in a while I took it out and read it. Read the notes of praise she’d written in the margins. Read the words I’d written about my life and I felt good. Good enough to start writing again. It took another ten years or so for me to find the courage to take my first creative writing class and a little while longer to finally believe that there was never anything wrong with the way I think. Nothing wrong with the things I feel. And nothing wrong with what I choose to put on paper.
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