1.3 Writer Rising

The scent of chickens from the coops across the street sifts through a cracked window, where on this warm Monday evening in early September, 1971, I sit crying at my dining room table. The lights are low. I struggle to remember my alphabet as I write letters in some imagined style of script. It is the night before the opening day of first grade, and I am panicking that I will not be perfect and ready for what Mrs. O’Donnell, my new teacher, has in store for us.

The fowl sounds of scratching and hackling nag at me as I wonder if I will ever be good enough, ready enough, to please others.

Such is my foundation for audience awareness, a blessing and a curse for me as I struggle to let go of pleasing while taking the risk in vulnerable words — forms that go against the styles and structures of our times.

Conform. peck peck peck Conform. peck peck peck Conform.

I read through my poetry from my youngest years and see a remarkable attempt to paint pictures in soft pastels, a diluted wash of me, as teachers remarked just as plainly.

“Excellent.” “Has potential.” “My favorite.”

In the strongest desire possible to please an audience, I failed at making any memorable connection.

I often look back at that evening in my dining room and ponder the origins of such anxiety and dread. It certainly didn’t evolve out of any parental or sibling pressure; I was the only one who freaked out about pleasing my teachers or always being prepared. That cycle of anxiety-to-pleasing-to-failure continued for several years until I happened to have a teacher named Jack Delaney in sixth grade, a charismatic man who taught me all about the writing process and the power of drafting and revising; risks were possible before a real audience would take a look at what I had written.

It was the ’70s, and we were all about open-space classrooms. In one large room we had six sections of fifth and sixth graders with a reading space in the center. We looked like a race track with avid readers on the inside, absorbing the stories of Judy Blume, Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, and so many others.

In our slice of space, we held something called “writers’ workshop” where we shared our drafts with others, took risks in reading them aloud, and then letting our peers know what we liked about their stories, and what we didn’t. For the first time in my life, I could feel the stress and anxiety leave me. There was a process after all; it didn’t have to be perfect the first time around.

The concept was liberating to me, as it provided me space to make mistakes, experiment, and even fail. This was the first time anybody had ever taught me to “trust the process” and to think less of what pleased others and more of what I had to say as me: the writer, a real individual with real ideas that — shocker — weren’t necessarily the same as those of my friends.

And so, in retrospect, I’m not really sure which came first: the structure and style of writing recursively, or Delaney granting me permission to take risks, be myself, and — most importantly — write for myself.

When we felt a piece was ready for release, Delaney gave our words an audience, and each Friday, we would gather in a circle on a reading carpet — just like we did when we were in kindergarten — to share our polished works. No criticisms, no judgments. Just applause.

If only origin stories had happily-ever-afters built nicely into them.

Years later, in my first months of teaching, the anxieties returned. I found myself worried about being the “perfect” teacher and pleasing everyone: administrators, colleagues, parents, and students. It was an impossible thing to do, but I could not break from the cycle. It affected my writing, too. Everything had taken a back seat to the whirlwind of pleasing, acceptance, and fear of failure.

Conform. peck peck peck Conform. peck peck peck Conform.

After an evening school event in early spring, in the very same month that my writing mentor Jack Delaney died, I had an unlikely conversation with best-selling author Tom Clancy. I was teaching a few of his children, and he knew I was working on a book. He took me aside and asked me how the writing was going.

I hung my head a little and muttered about how busy life was as a first-year teacher. I could barely keep up with the demands placed on me.

He laughed at me and shook his head. “My god, boy. You’re still in diapers, a writer rising. Just make the time and write the damned thing.”

I took his advice, and a few years later, I did finish writing the damned thing.

There’s still no happily ever after, and the struggles continue. But I do make the time to write, no matter what, and I still remember the power of writing in cursive, I still remember to let go of the anxiety, and I still remember to trust the process.

After all, I am the Writer Rising.

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