Toni Morrison once said that if you can’t find the book you want, write it.
I only discovered that quote two years ago, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve been living it since I was twelve, when I wrote my first novel in a fit of rage.
Or arrogance. I prefer not to wax philosophical about it.
The reason for my rage was that one of my favorite book series at the time had not finished with the outcome I wanted. So, I decided to write my own version of it. I would like it noted that it wasn’t a very well written novel. For example, here’s a small passage: “We all have a purpose in this life, Creston, but this isin’t ours, to destroy everyone else with our greif this is not what our parents wanted from us and you know it!” That was page ninety-seven, in the middle of a very dramatic scene between two villains.
My misspelling of grief and isn’t was intentional. I not only misunderstood the point of contractions, but I had very strict rules about punctuation back then, (meaning I did not believe in the use of it) so the entire book is just one continuous sentence, consisting of about seventeen paragraphs. I thought it was the most ingenious piece of Literature since The Bible, and thus dubbed it Fate is Fatal. I passed it around to close friends and teachers, hungry for feedback.
That fact strikes horror into my soul, for the reasons mentioned above. Why didn’t anyone just force me to use a period? However, back then, I only felt terror at the prospect of other people seeing my work. Did that mean I was a writer? I spent every spare moment editing and adding to this story, compiling a folder of new ones. They loitered on the home screen of my parent’s old desktop computer, which glitched out every few moments. Yet still I wrote. Still I edited. Still, I handed out my improperly punctuated and grammatically incorrect novel.
I wanted more, but I was afraid of what that meant.
After all, DID WRITERS EVEN GET PAID?
As a child, I had always assumed that writing was a volunteer job, similar to working at a soup kitchen on Sundays or picking up diapers from the side of the road. You know, they’re all very noble endeavors, but not an actual job. It was philanthropy. Beautiful and useless. My fear festered years after that first novel, bled into my self-confidence.
Eventually, I stopped shoving my book into the hands of random strangers, I barely mentioned to anyone that I wrote. Yet I cradled the zebra-striped, broke-spine journal that held my first novel close to my chest.
Every day, I would sit at the croaking, stiff computer chair in my family’s living room. I endured the ten-minute long whir of an old desktop as it prepared itself. Those nights when insomnia crept along the shadows and crooks of my imagination, I would sneak into the living room and write. I filled hundreds of word documents with gibberish, which is to say, stories about flying people, knights, queens and shape-shifting wolves. I read ravenously and wrote reinterpretations of what I had read. It was as if I fancied myself a critic, or a fanfic writer, either one.
I dreaded what this meant, to be so in love with what I saw as “useless work.”
Now, I have added poetry (spoken and otherwise) to the files on a subsequently healthier laptop. I stash my old journals in the bottom drawer of my desk; and take them out only when old fears start to rear to the surface. It is the same terror that beleaguers most writers. I fully expect to stumble awake and realize punctuation is real and I live beneath a bridge. I wonder what ignorant mistakes I’ve hidden between paragraphs and sentences now, and if secretly my readers are laughing at my stupidity. In the spare moments when the world slows enough for me to hear my own breath, I contemplate if this passion that seemed so magical when I was thirteen is only a shadow of what the world truly needs. I wonder if I am only a shadow, gesturing desperately at the sunlight behind me.
Yet even as those fears remain, I understand now what useless work looks like. I have observed people who spent their lives doing absolutely nothing, but they did so for good reasons. Those who undertook hurtful actions with good intentions. I empathize with them, because they, too, fear waking up beneath bridges, the world having spun out of orbit.
Yet that empathy only spurs me to write more. Yes, writers don’t get paid the big bucks (or any bucks, commonly) but writing itself is not useless work. I attribute any and all of my successes to the fact that I love books. The skills I use daily, whether it be for a class project or contacting any number of people for fundraising, I have only because I started rage-writing a novel at the age of twelve.
As Toni Morrison said, I understood something was missing, and decided to fill it with myself. Maybe that was a stupid idea. Maybe I should relocate to the nearest bridge now, but I doubt it would help. I’d only keep filling the voids, gesturing desperately at the light, misspelling simple words, and tucked safely into my bottom drawer would be a broke-spine, zebra-printed journal.