“This is what happens. You put it away for a little while, and now and again you look in the closet for something else and you remember, and you think, soon. Then it becomes something that is just there, in the closet, and other things get crowded in front of it and on top of it and finally you don’t think about it at all.
The thing that was your brightest treasure. You don’t think about it. A loss you could not contemplate at one time, and now it becomes something you barely remember.
This is what happens.”
I am at an age where it seems that for the first time I really have things to say that begin with the phrase, “Ten years ago…”
I can remember things that I was doing 10 years ago. I couldn’t say that for a long time, because who can really remember what they were doing when they were two, five, or nine years old? Now I can remember being in school plays, running with the track team, and racing a big cross-town race at the end of the summer of 2003.
“Ten years ago…”
“When I was in high school…”
“When I was in university…”
“When I was younger…”
“When I was a kid…”
When all of these things were taking place, I remember that I really considered myself a writer. It was a core part of my identity.
These days, working in the immigrant-serving sector, I hear a lot about identity. My colleagues and I talk to each other and clients about whether newcomers feel like they “belong” in Canada. We ask about clients’ nationalities: Who are you? Where do you come from? Where do your loyalties lie? Are you an African hyphen Canadian, or maybe you’re not going to hyphenate? What language do you speak?
All of this talk about identity has me considering my own, and those kinds of internal conversations are often very tumultuous. This part about me being a “writer” is often highlighted in my day-to-day work. Colleagues ask, “You’re a good writer. Can you proofread this?” or “You’re a good writer. Can you help me with this proposal?”
But the only writing I do, these days, is at work. My writerly identity is left behind in my office every afternoon, as I run off to the bus stop in my commuting-girl flats and that commuting-girl shiny, flustered face I’d rather not think about.
I can’t get excited about my relationship with my keyboard. I don’t really keep a notebook anymore, nor do I compose paragraphs in my head when I’m in the shower or on a run. Writing and I have a purely business relationship. It’s a transaction: If I put in enough time at my desk I can leave for the day to do something I’d much rather be doing (maybe eating… running… doing laundry… anything). Put more bluntly, if I mope my way through awkward writer agony I can leave for the day to relax and not touch my computer. If I sit here long enough I can. Stop. Writing.
These are terrible feelings, and they make me so confused about this identity that I’ve carried around in my pocket for probably even longer than 10 years.
To make matters worse, for the past several months I have been gorging at a literature buffet. No longer drowning in an all-academic reading list (I still love you, academia!) I am free to fill my bookshelves with whatever I like. And I do. I am a regular visitor to traditional bookstores, used bookstores, and online bookstores. Sometimes even comic shops. I can’t get enough. I am a shameless bookworm. I have happily developed serious relationships with my new favourite authors and renewed bonds with my authors of yesteryear. When I trek through their worlds – like the world of Juliet in Alice Munro’s Runaway, quoted above – I can’t help but think that maybe the universe doesn’t need any writing from me. It’s getting what it needs from Munro, Kingsolver, Irving, Hay, Hooks, Ephron, Horby, Sedaris.
The first thing I feel when I encounter a beautiful passage is joy. Joy! The kind of joy that makes me put a book down and stare out a window. I can’t believe I am so fortunate as to (1) have the time to read and (2) taste such gorgeous words that make me feel so happy. The second thing I feel is remorse. I’m sad that I feel so disconnected from my “past life” as a person who strived to create such beauty and happiness herself. Part of me wants nothing to do with writing. Writing, it seems, is something I barely remember.
But part of me wants to confront this antipathy with the exact opposite. I want to have all the time in the world to be a writer – to sit in my little pink office all day, staring lovingly at a screen or notebook. I’d start my day by getting out of bed, making a cup of coffee, and turning on my computer. I’d open a new Word document and just start writing. I wouldn’t stop until lunch time, when I’d sit down to a happy green lunch made from ingredients I’d picked from my own garden (can you imagine?). Then I’d take my work to a nearby coffee shop and type, type, type until it was time to come home and make dinner. I’d go for a run. I’d read a good book. And then I’d go to bed and do it all again the next day.
The other day I listened to a podcast in which Barbara Kingsolver discussed her book The Poisonwood Bible. Having finished the book only last month, I was excited to hear her thoughts on what I consider to be an incredible work of art. I positively swooned when she described her research process. Apparently, in order to learn about the green mamba for the book, she spent a full afternoon at an Ohio zoo waiting for their resident green mamba to open its mouth so she could see inside. What she discovered – its mouth is sky-blue inside! – became a pivotal, juicy piece of information in the book.
Can you imagine waiting all afternoon for a mamba to open its mouth, and realizing that you can actually use the information you collect from this situation?
That’s foraging, for sure. That’s opening your eyes and ears to everything the world offers so you can share what you learn, just for the sake of a good story. That sounds like the way I want to live.
For a long time, my identity as a writer was my brightest treasure. I don’t know when I put it away, but from what I can tell it happened slowly and without much care. From here I think I have a choice. I could keep it in the closet, or I could bring it out, dust it off, and wear my identity proudly once again.
My past, I’ve learned, is just a story. It should have no power over me. For this reason I don’t care about so many things that took place 10… five… two… years ago, but some things deserve to be a part of my future. Because there is something about words arranged on a page, shared for the sake of a good story, that I can’t walk away from.
Ten years ago I was a writer, and maybe I still am.