One semester while I was in college I took an art history course. Every week or two my professor would hand me back my paper, with an A and a "Kairu, I think you will be a writer." And a smile. I was twenty, and those words lit a flicker of something in my mind that is with me still. Later I would walk away from it all but those words of encouragement stayed with me.
Some years passed. I was a long way away from Art History and Russian literature, working at a job which I loved (which I still love) but had nothing to do with the things I had studied before. Vague thoughts of writing a novel would occasionally flit across my mind, but I always lost focus after a few shaky first sentences. When driving in the car I would think about stories and plots, characters, scenes in my head but once confronted with a blank computer screen the words disappeared. And then I came across Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty. At its heart the book is a memoir of friendship, of the relationship between the novelist Patchett and the poet/writer Lucy Grealy, who died a few years ago at the age of 39, and it is heartbreakingly beautiful. They had met as graduate students at the University of Iowa, after having both graduated from Sarah Lawrence. It is a searing portrait of love and friendship, but the story of Ann and Lucy is not the part that twisted my heart, burrowed deep beneath my skin.
The University of Iowa, to give the story some background, is reknowned for the Iowa Writer's Workshop, a M.F.A. program that both Patchett and Grealy attended. It was while Grealy was there and having an on-off affair with B--- that this conversation, which has haunted me since I first read it, took place, between Patchett and the aforementioned B---.
...Lucy had told him I was dating someone [wrote Patchett]. "Don't let it get in the way of your writing," he said. "That's the most important thing. That's the reason why you're here." B---- had been a student at the Writer's Workshop years before...He wanted to know how much I had written. Did I work every day? "It's got to be every day," he said. "If you don't turn out pages every day, you're not really a writer. You're just playing at it. You're wasting your time....If you're interested in being a writer, if you're for real. But you won't be for real if you don't write the pages. Then you're just like everybody else. A lot of talk and nothing ever gets done...You have some little story in your head that you're going to get around to. This town is full of those people. I see them come in wanting to be writers and winding up as waitresses. The Workshop practically manufactures waitresses. What makes you think that you are going to be different from anybody else?....you're not ever going to be the thing you say you're going to be, because you don't do anything, you aren't anything. You aren't the girl with all the promise, the girl who's going to be a real writer."*
That conversation has echoed in my mind for a long time. It sent a chill up my spine. I wasn't going to be a writer. I wasn't going to be anything. My work in a lab was interesting and fun and I loved it, loved the people I worked with, but I had to face the fact that I was treading water, afraid to go anywhere. And I wasn't writing. I would lurk on internet messageboards, mocking celebrities' short-term marriages and ridiculous fashion choices, but when it came to writing I was paralyzed. Reading that harrowing conversation between Patchett and B--- set off something in me, the desire, the sense that in order to be a writer I had to start writing. But I didn't know where, or how, or about what, and I remained frozen, motionless, unable to begin.
Two years went by, and finally I began writing in my blog, this blog, a little every day. Sometimes a lot. One thought, idea, food, book, at a time. And then I realized I couldn't stop, that it was almost a compulsion. I think Bukowski said something about how a writer writes because he has to, not for anything except that driving desire to put words on paper. Can I finally call myself a writer now? Or am I still just playing at things?
*Patchett, Ann. Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. HarperCollins, 2004. p 39-40.