What Writing Does...
I was eighteen and designing a production line for making stepladders at Fitchburgh State College—the only college I could afford, and probably the only place that would have me. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this ain’t no life for me.’ I barely had a working idea of what life meant, but I was pretty sure it meant I didn’t have to do something without any meaning or purpose—and I certainly didn't want to spend my life designing a better stepladder.’
But, what did I want to do? Did I have the courage to even make a change in my life? If I had read The Odyssey, I might have known what to do; I might have known that I was on a heroic journey and that my call to adventure was the churning confusion in my gut, and I might have known to look for a helper and an amulet to get me over the threshold—that no quest is real until you realize that you cannot go it alone.
My helper was my English professor. I can't even recall her real name, but she was old and sweet, and so we called her Aunt Bee—and she was sweet enough to ask me to stay after class to meet with her one day early in the fall. (Although I was petrified she was going to have me expelled for charging five dollars to any kid in my dorm to write their English papers for them.)
Instead, she held a paper in her hand that I had written, and a paper in which I actually cared about what I wrote. The day before she had told us to take a walk through the city and then write about the walk. Most of my classmates stayed in the dorm, laughed about how naive Aunt Bee was, and wrote some insipid scrawls that they thought would qualify as an essay—or they tried to get me to write an essay for less than five dollars.
But I took the walk. I wandered through the poorest streets in Fitchburgh; I sat on front steps with little kids and old men; I sat with drunks and dreamers, and I wondered. I wondered if my walk was actually real, or if I was even real, and then wrote some story about a kid who couldn't tell if he was awake or dreaming or even which state of mind he wanted to live in. Aunt Bee shook this paper in my face and said bluntly, "You shouldn't be an industrial arts major. This [shaking the paper even closer to my face] is your gift!"
Never once had anyone told me I had a gift of any sort, except perhaps for whittling birds out of scraps of soft pine. I don't think Aunt Bee knew how ready I was for a change—any change. I seemed to take her off guard when I responded, "Okay. So what do I do?”
"Leave this place," she answered.
So I left.
Never had a decision been so easy and so hard at the same time. It was easy because I knew in my heart that Aunt Bee was right, but it was hard because my parents thought I was throwing my life away—and I was: I threw my old life away and charted a new course into a world of words and literature—a world that I really knew nothing about.
That decision in 1976 is the reason I am writing this to you today. It has been the proverbial long and winding road, but I have never been let down by a book or hobbled by anything I wrote, even though much of what I've written is pretty dumb and forgettable.
There was very little academia in my new journey. I learned to write by writing. I learned to write better by listening to what people thought and felt about my writing. I joined some writing workshops where each week each person would bring in some poem or story to share with a circle of other would be writers. I learned what worked in my writing and what didn't work—at least to the small universe of my writer’s circle. I never thought I was a good writer, and so I was never really bothered by what people said. I just thought, 'Cool. I guess I should change this….'
Even after a few workshops, I still never thought I was a writer, until I one day a friend introduced me to his friend by saying, "This is Fitz. He's a writer." I protested that I was not a writer, and my friend just said, "Then what the hell else are you?"
"I don't know. An apple picker, I guess," for at the time I was picking apples with a crew of Jamaicans in a New Hampshire orchard.
"At any rate, Fitz is a better writer than he is an apple picker. That much I'm sure," my friend said, sealing the deal and sealing my fate—a fate which, by and large, has been good to me.
But be careful, for you, too, might become a writer; and once you become a writer, you can't turn back; you can only turn away. Such is the power and allure of writing. If schools really knew what happens when a kid becomes a writer, they would ban the teaching of writing. It's like giving a ten year old the keys to a bad-ass car; it's like pointing across a canyon and screaming, "Jump!" It's like opening the window and pointing in every direction and saying, "This is all you need to know and everything you'll ever try to know."
Writing is unfettered and audacious freedom.
Don't do it.