Why I Love to Write

My family is full to overflowing with storytellers. Southerners on one side and Arabs on the other, for as long as I can remember, I have been surrounded by people who like to spin tales, true or false or handsomely embellished amalgamations of the two. So it’s really no wonder that I’ve been making up stories since I was able to figure out how. When I was a kid, I usually did this in face-to-face conversations, inventing first-person narratives on the spot, telling people about what I was doing or what I had done, except it wasn’t really me, it was a character just like me who was far more interesting. Sure, I could’ve told the girl at the skating pond who asked me how I learned to skate backwards that it was really just a matter of putting on my skates and working at it until I figured it out, but it was much more interesting to say that I was in training for the Winter Olympics and I had to practice for hours and hours before school every day and I had lots of sparkly costumes. I was in fourth grade when I told my entire class a wild, completely unbelievable story and my teacher called my mother and my mother made sure that I spent my entire Spring Break indoors with a Bible and a concordance, writing down every single verse about lies, lying and liars. As it turns out, there are a lot of verses on the subject of dishonesty. I think that punishment might’ve been torturous for anyone at any age, but it was especially bad for a precocious eight-year-old who wanted to be outside running around like, well, a precocious eight-year-old. One thing is certain: it broke me of the habit of… lying to people’s faces? I’m sure that’s what you’d call it.

But I learned something. Even though it was socially unacceptable (and also, uh, morally wrong) to tell people things that were false and pretend that they were true, making stuff up was fun. And if I couldn’t do it in conversation, then I could do it on paper. And if I was honest about the fact that it was fiction, then I wasn’t a kid with a lying problem. No, I was creative. And since I was good at making things up, I wasn’t just creative. I was gifted.

And thus my love affair with writing began.

Throughout my pre-teen years and adolescence, I was always writing something. I kept a journal which I mainly used to document the drama of every crush I ever had (boy, did I have a lot of crushes). I wrote short stories while I was supposed to be paying attention in school. And when I got home, I would sit down at my typewriter to work on my novel. I never finished my novel, though I have three drafts of it, each about 70 pages in length. One draft is a very straightforward, traditional narrative, another is more experimental, in that I tried telling the story from five different perspectives, each in a different place on the timeline of the story, and the third was an entirely unsuccessful marriage of the two. All of the manuscripts (along with notebooks full of short stories and drafts) are in a box in my closet. I pulled out my novel not too long ago and read it, just for the sake of nostalgia. It was very very obviously written by a thirteen-year-old, and I’d probably die of embarrassment if anybody else ever read it (hell, I almost died of embarrassment reading it myself), but I have to give myself props for being so passionate about what I loved.

Over time, my relationship with writing has been a rocky one. I’ve gone through phases where it was all I could think about, and just as many where I hated it and wanted nothing to do with it. These days I’m a lot more casual in my approach. Neither hot nor cold, I allow myself to flirt with it once in awhile. A couple of weeks ago, during one such dalliance, I sat down and made myself write a story. I didn’t feel like writing a story and more than once I felt like I should just as well get up and do something else, but I refused to get out of my chair until I had knocked out a draft. It started the way it always does: with a picture in my head and a slice of mood. I didn’t know what was happening or even why, but I stared down that mental image until I could turn it into words on a page. And when I was done, when I sat back in my chair and read what I had written, I thought, “Huh. I still got it.”

That’s a singular feeling, one that anybody who creates knows well. I’ve written tons of crap in my life. Trite, cliched, boring crap. And I know it when I see it. When it comes to my written output, the crap far outweighs the… not crap. But there are times, every once in awhile, when I create something and I know (before I even ask anyone else to read it — and I always ask for critical input from other people, because there’s nothing worse than being stuck inside the self-congratulatory echo chamber of one’s own head) that damn, it’s good. A singular feeling, yes. An incredible rush. Doing something well is a joy that can’t be surpassed.

And that is why I love to write.

8 Responses

  1. Yeah – tell us a story,
    Yeah – tell us a story, Jamelah!

    Stephen King once opined that he believed anyone born and raised in the South could become a good writer. The gothic nature of Southern life, he suggests in Danse Macabre, plants a seed in a young mind which, properly nurtured, can grow into literature.

    Storytelling is a strong Southern tradition; growing up, between beatings, we got told lots of stories about family, locale, and of course legends (the old haunted house down the road). Like you, I’m convinced my Southern heritage contributes a great deal to my own innate storytelling talent.

    Lately I’ve wondered what factors contribute to a “storytelling tradition” within a culture. Part of me thinks it’s a rural thing – not that urban people don’t tell stories, but that in Thee Olde Dayes city-folk had theater and assorted entertainments, while rural-folk had stories (maybe radio, which featured, you know, a lot of storytelling and singing). Without other forms of entertainment, storytelling becomes (or rather remains, since humans have probably been doing it since they became human) a dominant practice. Not even a half-baked idea, just something I wonder about on occasion.

  2. Then your spirit must have
    Then your spirit must have soared when you wrote the last four sentences of that post, because they are good.

    Wow . . . good writing about good writing . . . be careful or you will induce an escalating spiral of meta feedback, causing a paradigm shift in the fabric of text.

    p.s. Can I read the story?

  3. Why not write more stories,
    Why not write more stories, Jamelah, if you still got it?
    My problem always has been that I’ve never had tales to tell and preferred truth to b.s.

  4. telling tales has always been
    telling tales has always been admired through history by ancient cultures as to showing a trait or a lesson Hell did Jonah really get swallowed by that whale?

  5. Marianne Moore, Linda Gregg,
    Marianne Moore, Linda Gregg, and Margaret Atwood all describe finding an image and having to run with it to the end. The last two only wrote the images that physically glowed in their imaginations. The glow was an indicator of what should be written. Do you see it? Anybody else see the glow?

  6. I grew up in Georgia and
    I grew up in Georgia and South Carolina and both of my grandfathers could (can) tell a tightly woven tale full of suspense and romance, but notably about common folks. My maternal Grandfather Thornton grew up in a textile mill village, where life revolved around the Riegel cotton mill. My paternal Grandfather Robinson grew up in the fields as a sharecropper’s son. Their tales were largely based on their occupational environments, but family life for poor white southern families was basically the same wherever you went in the 1920’s and 30’s. Poverty, being shoeless, being hungry, hard work, God, and tyrannical fathers ruled the day.

  7. Southerners and Arabs — I’m
    Southerners and Arabs — I’m imagining Flannery O’Connor narrating the 1001 Nights. That would be awesome.

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