Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Road to Becoming a Writer

In elementary school, my brother and I were often asked by strangers whether we were twins. We would reply with silence and continue walking, our D.A.R.E. training kicking in like an autoimmune response.  Safety first, that was the motto.

It didn't help that my mother would march us to school in matching attire, khaki short-shorts that ballooned out at the bottoms, knee high socks protruding out of chunky sneakers, and backpacks large enough to hide in.  However, looking closer, as my brother and I often did, our differences revealed themselves. 

My brother had an organized array of freckles that ran under his eyes and trailed across the bridge of his nose, whereas I had a spackling of moles that would sometimes get mistaken for fallen crumbs of food.  He had a bright white smile that seemed to radiate a kind of holy energy, and I had a broken front tooth with a sharp edge.  He was in special classes and I was in the "special" class.

The "special" class was not where I wanted to be.  In the mornings, when my brother and I would be parted and shuttled away from each other, the feeling of being left behind would creep up and then hover over me for the rest of the day.

The way out was to become "normal," which I suppose really meant functional.  It was a lofty task with no clear steps, and so I decided to do the next best thing: instead of becoming functional, I would fake it.

I was placed in the special class due to my poor reading and writing skills, which at that time meant I had trouble recognizing the relationship between cause and effect.  The teacher might ask, "Why was Billy sad at the end of the book?" To which I might reply, "I get scared sometimes too. But my favorite color is green." That being said, I was certainly dabbling in the principle of cause and effect; if I could convince the teacher I was normal, then I would, in effect, be freed from the darkest corner of the school.  

For several months, I was bombarded with corrections.  My poor teacher must have done her best to avoid me and my answers, but I made sure there was very little she could do.  The only option for the both of us was to tackle the problem head on, and that's precisely what we did.  

By some kind of miracle, the corrections became fewer and farther in between.  Through experimentation I slowly learned exactly what it was the teacher expected of me.  I felt more sure of my answers and responded with more confidence.  And then, after a year in the special class, I was released back into the herd. 

By the time I reached high school, the chip in my tooth had been filled with a kind of hardened putty; it broke frequently but was, for the most part, functional. My brother and I looked less and less alike. He was in baggy jeans and I was in pants far too tight.  I bring up high school because it was the first time since elementary school that I felt undeserving of my success.  I was faking it after all.  Perhaps it was the sudden influx of hormones, or perhaps it was the confused angst of Holden Caulfield slowly seeping in, but I felt like a phony. 

I didn't get perspective on this issue until much later in life when I was a sophomore in college.  The angst was still there; I was fighting "the man" in the only way I knew how.  I took on a major my parents could be ashamed of: creative writing.  I had a great teacher who dished out lifesaving advice for writers.  "If you want to be a writer," he said, "marry rich." 

He had much more to offer too.  "Fake it till you make it," he said, one sweaty summer afternoon.  In other words, the only way to become a writer was to pretend to be a writer.  One day, it just might click.

That moment happened for me during the fall term when I had to critically analyze a short story.  I didn't particularly like the story--not yet at least--and I found myself flipping through the pages looking for patterns...but mostly I was watch the leaves fall over a footpath that cut through the center of campus.  How would a writer analyze the story?  I wasn't sure.  

I thought about my English teacher in high school and wondered how he might read the story.  He talked a lot about the metaphorical masks we wear. He was obsessed with identity and it became a kind of running joke the class had behind his back.  But on this particular fall day, looking out at the leaves, I put his mask on and examined the story again.  

It wasn't immediate, but eventually I could see what was buried behind the text.  The patterns had been right in front of me all along.  It was an awakening. Everything became clear all at once. It had finally clicked.  

All this being said, the road to becoming a successful writer is a troubled one.  More often than not, you might feel as if you're bluffing. I still do, but I urge you to welcome the opportunity.  Be a phony!  Raise your hand and be corrected!  Let your teachers loathe your presence!  Pretend to be a writer until it clicks.  Fake it till you make it! 

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