I like to joke that the only sign I was meant to be a writer was all that bad poetry I wrote when I was young. This phase seemed to peak in my teens. Hard emotions percolated up to the surface right after an ugly breakup or a bout of disillusionment over my disconnected Dad. I’d grab a nearby pencil and paper—back of an envelope or the white space beneath my math homework—and scratch out some meandering piece of free verse. What I was writing seemed oh-so-profound—at least it seemed to be in the moment.
Yet while the release felt cathartic, my words never quite matched the way I felt when I wrote them. Hours after the fact, I’d read my poem back to myself, and feel embarrassed. My tone was always so maudlin. The poem seemed to lack form, and possibly, substance. Maybe one or two lines of what I’d written reached out and grabbed me by the throat. But the rest of it—perhaps because I was a reader of “real writers”—basically sucked.
It was only after all these years, when I happened to be driving around and listening to an acclaimed Canadian author being interviewed on CBC Radio that it hit me—how hard we writers are on our younger selves, in a way we wouldn’t be about any other accomplishment, any other art form. How that misguided thinking can stopper us up for ages. How it can squelch a writer for life.
So much depends upon a purple wheelbarrow?
As I rounded a suburban corner near my Mom’s house, novelist Jen Sookfong Lee, who’d just published her first poetry collection, The Shadow List, was telling a veteran radio host how she got her start. “I would write a draft of a poem,” she said, “but then, I wouldn’t go back to it. I didn’t have enough confidence about my writing back then to properly try to rewrite it.”
A draft of a poem? I nearly drove up and over the curb when I heard those words. You mean there’s such thing as a poem draft—and permission to go back again a dozen times and rework it?
And then—it dawned on me—how unfairly I’d treated my poetry in those tender years. I’d always seen writers as true artists, assuming the gift of writing was something you either had or you hadn’t. The only way to unearth evidence of that gift, I figured, was to do it once and see what happened. If I produced art—if a poem spilled forth from some divine source—then perhaps it was a sign that I, too, had the calling. But if the first words I wrote down screamed “amateur!—what were you thinking?” then forget it. I didn’t have what it took. And what’s more, I never would.
Is there anything else we are so unforgiving about? Do we tell children, whose first stick-figure drawings of their parents might have arms growing out of their heads, just to give up, to try another career, that they don’t have what it takes? Do we tell young violinists simply to put down their bows and call it quits during the first ear-piercing recital?
Write because it makes you smile
Chances are, we’re more likely to reassure these kids. To say: “practice, practice; you’ll get better with time. I have your back. I believe in you.”
If their feet dance around a soccer ball and it makes them smile, isn’t that enough to encourage them to do it again—and again?
“There, there,” I’d like to go back and tell my young poet-self. “Did writing those words make you feel good? Make you heave a sigh of relief just to get them out of your body and onto the page?”
“Then keep it up, dear baby-writer. One day, your words might flourish, might grow up and fill the pages of a great big, special book. But for now, you just keep writing. Keep writing, because it feels right, and it feels (so damn) good.”