My friend and former library director invited me to speak about my NaNo experience in front of a group of aspiring student writers; it’s made me stop and think about writing and what it means to call myself a writer…
I don’t remember a time when I haven’t been a writer, but it took a long time before I was comfortable identifying as a Writer. What does it mean to me, this writing thing? It’s a part of who I am, when all’s said and done. There are days when I question why I write—-why I bother with the work and doubt and disappointment—-but I know I can’t give it up. Even if my work is never published, I would be cheating myself if I didn’t write. There are stories in me. That’s the thing that keeps me going. There are stories in me that I need to write. Stories that are alive in my mind. They’re the kinds of stories I seek and often fail to find when I wander the stacks. I feel compelled to write them myself.
Growing up in a working class Hispanic community, being a writer was not a career goal that seemed practical. We need to work. We need to eat. We need to improve our lives. Imagination is all well and good, but it won’t put food on the table. Good writing will help you excel in school, but what else is there? I kept a diary, played with dolls for hours, creating lives and stories for them. I think of these as my earliest efforts. Those dolls were my characters, even before I knew what plot meant. I wrote stories for school, poems, won contests… my teachers were encouraging, reminding me that I had a skill worth nurturing. My mom had always been supportive, even if she doesn’t quite understand the process. She knows it means sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time, that it makes me grumpy and surly when I can’t get my work done, that I groan to think of another draft… but then there’s the payoff: articles, books, chapters. Academic pieces as much as creative. They’re all a part of my journey and they keep me moving forward.
Academic writing is a different beast altogether, but the struggle is the same. You learn the conventions and find the patterns and deal with editors who may not understand what you’re trying to say, but are willing to help you make the most of your work (or not). I have my own way of writing. Sometimes, it gets me into trouble with purists. I press on.
As I prepare to start a new project and sink into another round of editing, I have come to know myself as a writer. I continue to grow with each word. As I prepare to talk about writing a first draft, I look back at my own first drafts, at the joyous mess of them. First drafts are the worst, but they’re also the best. You just can’t beat that feeling when you find a story you need to tell. So my advice is the same I would give a writer embarking an academic paper—love your subject, you’re going to be spending a lot of time with it.