i am a writer

i am a writer

Heidi Thornock


            I am a writer.  Many people don’t think of themselves as writers, especially if they haven’t published something.  I have published a book review or two upon request, but nothing significant.  But I am still a writer.  However, I have not always considered myself a writer.  It has been a long journey to get me to the point where I am a writer.

            My writing experience started like most others’ with assignments in grade school.  I remember writing a poem in third grade that I was embarrassed to recite in front of the class because the old man went to the “bathroom” (such a word in public!).  I remember my father red-inking my papers to make the writing better.  I remember writing a paper for the DARE program that made me so passionate by the end that every sentence ended with an exclamation point!  As a teenager, I wrote a couple of religious poems in order to fulfill requirements for an award.  I took AP English and earned a “5,” the highest score possible, on the test.  But I still was not a writer.

            I did not have to take English in college…until I changed my major to English teaching.  My first class was an upper division college writing course.  I was shocked when I walked in the first day, and the professor explained that we would not be writing any essays in the class.  “If you are in this class, then you are obviously proficient enough to write an essay,” she said.  Our topics were fairly broad, and genre choices completely open – as long as it wasn’t an essay.  I was collecting stories about my father-in-law who had died over a decade earlier as a surprise for my husband.  I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.  I weaved something together (I’m not even really sure what to call it) that tied experiences and stories about my father-in-law with quotes from one of our texts.  It was kind of dry and factual although I tried hard to liven it up.

            I also thought I would try my hand at a short story, something new, something different.  I told a story called “Life Growing Up” about watching the town and family grow and age from the backyard.  Only at the end did I reveal that the speaker was a tree.  I thought that paper was so unique and clever, but I’m sure almost anyone could have figured out it was a tree long before the end of my story.  I was definitely not a writer.

            I took another class of literary theory about criticism.  The professor was enamored with Hemingway, and that was about 75% of what we read.  Inexplicably, 95% of what we read had to do with sex.  I did not enjoy the class very much.  Our papers were to apply a certain critical theory to a piece of literature.  There was only one Hemingway story that seemed to work with a particular theory, but I balked because I hated the story.  It was too harsh, too vicious, too cruel, and it brought up too many painful memories.  But it was all I had, so I wrote it.  I wrote that paper with all the passion, frustration, and hatred I had against that story.  And it worked!  I was recommended by the professor, I received an outstanding grade, and I’ll even admit that it was a good paper.  Until I had a reputation to live up to for the next paper.  I learned that passion for or against a topic makes a strong piece of writing, but I did not learn to become a writer.

            My class on young adult literature was a different format from most.  We studied various genres of young adult literature and worked with them in thought-stretching assignments.  Our final consisted of interviewing a local Japanese-American woman who grew up on 25th Street.  Her father was murdered when she was a teenager, and it is still unsolved.  We could use whatever information we received and manipulate it how we wanted to design an outline for a novel.  I chose to write a murder mystery and even went so far as to write the first two chapters.  I enjoyed the assignment, but who was I kidding?  I wasn’t a writer.

            The same professor assigned a multigenre paper in my writing methods course.  The only topic I could come up with was “love” – way too broad to do anything with.  I chose to write a dialogue between an elderly mother and her daughter; a letter to my husband; a poem defining love; a travel article/memoir about Dachau; a short story about pets; and a memoir about a male best friend.  I wrote the paper, peer edited it, put it all together, and turned it in.  I got it back with an A-, and a note that if I wanted some more detailed comments to come talk to the professor.  I figured, what the heck?  While discussing my memoir, my professor said, “You were in love with him, weren’t you?”  The statement I had been denying to friends, family, my husband, and myself stared me in the face.  I couldn’t be in love because he had never felt that way about me.  I found myself saying, “Yeah, I guess I was.”  She said that she could see that to a certain point, then I got scared in my writing, backed away, and it grew weaker.  I took a risk, revised it based on her suggestions, and mailed a copy off to him.  For the first time, I cared about something enough to take it beyond the grade.  I assume he received it; I never talked to him about it.  But the seedlings of a writer were there.

            I graduated and went on with my life.  But that young adult novel kept nagging me.  I finally sat down over the summer and finished the entire thing.  I sent a copy to my professor and the woman who was the source.  It was unique because it switched from the main character’s voice to another character every other chapter to get both points of view.  It also took place in the past and the present.  I was so proud I had finished writing an entire book!  However, their general consensus was, “Huh?”  My novel was too complex, no one could follow it.  There were some good ideas in there, but they were too difficult to dig out.  I stored the ideas and trashed the rest.  I started over completely from scratch.  I painstakingly re-wrote the entire novel.  I threw out stuff I just couldn’t fit in.  I tried to re-work what I loved.  I asked for feedback from my students, the target audience.  Finally I finished it a second time.  It was stronger and much better than the first draft, and I’m glad I finished it.  But I was anything but a writer. 

            I decided to return to school for my master’s degree.  My first class assigned three papers about whatever we wanted, some research/sources required, and whatever length we wanted.  I decided to write an argument directed toward the State Board of Education to make Black Like Me a classroom standard.  I worked hard, and wrote a pretty strong argument.  When I turned it in the professor told me it was too long for my audience.  I already knew that, but I didn’t know how to fix it.  He gave me my grade and some general suggestions and sent me on my way.  I worked with it; I agonized over every good point I had to cut.  Finally I reduced it by about two pages.  Still way too long.  I took it back.  He couldn’t really tell me anything else.  It still sits waiting for me, calling for me to come back.  I keep telling  it, “I can’t yet.  I need some time and distance before I can determine what I can afford to lose.”  It still sits.  How can I consider myself a writer if I can’t even finish a paper?

            I took a class on Shakespeare.  I loved the class, although there was an exorbitant amount of writing.  I turned to my favorite play, Hamlet, for my final paper.  I explored the portrayals of madness and their implications throughout the play.  I burned out the entire 18-page paper in about two days (my husband graciously kept my 1 ½-year-old away from me for the weekend).  I took the remaining week or two for peer feedback and revision.  I felt my finished product could someday sit in a journal.  In order to achieve that it would take a lot of polishing, revision, and re-writing, so I wasn’t a writer.

Several years ago I had a fascinating dream that I jotted down as soon as I woke up so I wouldn’t forget it.  Now I finally had time to work with it.  I started a second young adult novel, completely different from the first.  My main character was almost a personification of myself, although her circumstances were different.  I brought in my own life’s experiences to determine how she would react in various situations.  I have sought advice about how to structure or establish her story.  I have joined two writing groups to help share her adventures.  I am stealing moments from my housework to let her be heard.  She is a living, breathing being in my head, struggling to come out.  Her story has become my master’s project.  I want everyone to hear what she has to say.  I want young girls to know that love isn’t what they think, but real love is so much better and stronger.  And I want my character to tell them that they can make the best of any situation they are put in.  For the first time, I am structuring my life around the movie in my head.  Finally, I am a writer.

            I am a writer.  You may never see my book on the shelf or remember my name.  I probably won’t be on some talk show, or have hundreds or thousands of people logging on to my blog every day.  In fact, probably nothing will happen except I’ll keep trying to let out the person in my head screaming to be heard.  Then again, maybe something will come of it.  But either way, it doesn’t matter because I am a writer.