Thursday, May 5, 2011

If I’d had a choice... by Judith Arnold

...I’m not sure I would have become a writer. Who would choose to live with such uncertainty, such chronic insecurity? No steady paycheck, no health insurance. No guarantee that three or six or twelve months worth of painstaking, ego-bruising work will produce anything publishable. I have writer friends who fantasize about practicing law or medicine, running a gift shop or a country inn. I have writer friends who fantasize about flipping burgers.

But fantasies notwithstanding, my friends and I just keep writing. I don’t think writing is something we choose. Writing chooses us. It’s organic, genetic, hard-wired.

As a child, I dreamed of becoming, in no particular order, an actress, a teacher, a Supreme Court Justice, an astronaut, a rock star, a chef, a ballerina and a veterinarian. While I indulged in those dreams, I wrote. I never thought of writing as something I could do. It was something I did, a routine part of my life, like eating and sleeping.

If I faced a challenge, I worked it out in words. If I didn’t understand something, I puzzled over it in sentences. Writing was the way I processed the world around me.

I always assumed that when I grew up I’d have a “real” job. Of course I would write—it was what I did—but I didn’t think of writing as a career until, in college, I won a writing contest that came with a money prize. Wow! I had gotten paid for my writing. To me, this was like being paid to breathe. That the world would toss money at me for doing what I would be doing anyway struck me as a pretty sweet deal.

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I moved to a commune on Cape Breton Island. I lived in a tent, cooked over an open fire, bathed in a stream (daily—and the water was freaking cold!) and wrote my first novel, a fiery political parable strongly influenced by Thomas Pynchon and Lewis Carroll and all in all quite ghastly. The other people living on the commune were a mixed bunch—a painter, a poet, some organic farmers, a teenage nomad, assorted liberal arts majors, and folks passing through.

One of my fellow commune-dwellers had undergone a great deal of psychotherapy which, I assumed, made him extremely wise in the ways of the human mind. I recall a sunny afternoon when he and I were sitting on a grassy, flower-strewn bluff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Abruptly, he turned to me and said, “You know what your problem is?”

I hadn’t been aware that I had a problem. But since he’d been through therapy multiple times, I figured he knew better than I did. “What is my problem?” I asked.

“Your problem is, you think in words. You can’t just become one with the world around you. You translate everything into words first. You can’t look at that flower—” he pointed to a wild rose blooming near me “—and become one with it. You look at it and think, ‘flower.’”

He was right. And for a while after this conversation, I was troubled, believing that something was seriously wrong with me.

But eventually I realized that this was simply the way my mind worked. I didn’t choose it, any more than I chose to have brown hair or an alto singing voice. I have always thought in words and meditated in paragraphs. I have always discovered stories around every corner, under every stone, in all those flowers I can’t become one with because words stand between me and their delicate petals.

I didn’t choose to be a writer. It is simply who I am.
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  1. What a beautiful post, Judith. I think writing did choose you, but clearly it knew what it was doing!

  2. I hear you, Judith. I'm constantly coming across things that make me think, "Ooh, there's a book in that!" It's wonderful but also at times exhausting.

  3. I didn't choose to be a writer. It's simply who I am.

    Well said, Judith! I feel the same way. :-)

  4. I love how truthful and honest your post is, Judith. Beautifully said!