Wednesday, March 04, 2009

on becoming a writer

In October, I will be celebrating my 20th Anniversary of moving to Portland--and, my 20th Anniversary of defining myself as a writer.

Even though I've been writing stories since third grade, it's only after moving to a city where I did not know one person that I formalized this reinvention of myself as a writer. Until then I was a mom. A dietitian. A widow. A young lady. All vague designations that had much more to do with my reflection to the world than my self-concept.

The first Monday after I moved into my one-bedroom apt in NW Portland, two babies in tow, I rented an electric typewriter--a cumbersome machine that weighed about the same as the microwave ovens of the era. The Willy Loman-type salesman who delivered it stayed for an hour or two, while I made him tea, and my babies crawled around and climbed all over him like puppies. He asked me why I was renting this state-of-the-art typewriter, and, just like that, it came tumbling out of my mouth: "I'm a writer."

"Oh," he said. "I thought maybe you were a student."

It didn't take longer than a heartbeat in those days for me to question myself. "Well," I said, "I'll probably need to take a writing class..."

"So, are you published?" he said.

There it was--the need for proof that I was, indeed, a writer, and not a wanna be.

"Not yet," I said, peeling my one-year old daughter off of his pant's leg.

"So, what do you write?"

I had notebooks filled with the answer to that question. But all I did was shrug my shoulders.

A couple of days ago, I was reminded of that exchange when I spoke to a creative nonfiction class at PCC, where my friend Rodger Larson teaches. After I gave my spiel--chatting up the local magazines where I've penned several articles, offering publishing advice and plugging the lo-residency school where I got my MFA, it occured to me that maybe these students just wanted to learn how to write. So I asked them: Why this class?

The mostly 20-somethings in the room, it turned out, were not there to find out more about publishing their work--they were there to learn how to write. Or write better. They came alive during a discourse on electronic media and computer vs notebook. These students were a tribute to the anachronistic medium--they pretty much all were appalled at the demise of the "book" as the main conduit to narrative engagement. It was heartening. Young people who don't blog! I, who just invested in an iphone mostly due to peer pressure and the expectation of immediate response--after all I own a communications business--was humbled.

I passed out a sign-up sheet to snag the students' email addresses, and I had two sections: "I'm interested in workshops on the craft of writing," and "I'm interested in workshops on the business of writing." Business got only two interested parties, and both of those had also signed under craft.

That same lust that I had that first Monday after moving to Portland: to write! Was alive in that Community College group. And about what happens after that? Not so much.

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