Over the last few months, I have started thinking less of myself as someone who writes long rambling Facebook posts when the events of the world arouse strong feelings from me and instead have started to embrace the possible identity of “writer.” The title still sits oddly with me, like the collar of a shirt that doesn’t quite fit, as though the moment I am so audacious as to claim it I will be called out as an impostor.
It was not always like this.
I started to write for my own pleasure when I was a pre-teen. I wrote poems and short stories mostly. I started the great American novel more than once. As I entered my teen-age years, I became more and more passionate about my writing, filling college-ruled notebooks with hand-written scrawl. These notebooks, long lost after too many moves in my young adult life, were filled with my tiny, cramped hand writing. Many pieces of writing were started and abandoned. Poems I particularly liked were painstakingly recopied into a fancy journal my mother once bought me, the paper so beautiful that sometimes I would touch it just to feel its texture. Some of my short stories, including one supernatural tale about the underground railroad and another, a suspense story about a nameless girl being chased by unknown menace through the woods, even made it into my high school newspaper. I went on to be editor of that newspaper (The Paper Tiger) as well as my high school yearbook. My high school ring had Journalism inscribed on the side. I most certainly thought of myself as a “serious” writer by my senior year.
This firm sense of identity played out even in my classwork. I am sure that Denise Merten, the most nurturing of my high school English teachers, would agree that I could even give a twenty page research paper an editorial slant. It was the early 1980’s and I took on such new and controversial topics as solar energy and in vitro fertilization. The political and ethical considerations surrounding these issues intrigued me as much as the topics themselves.
Many around me assumed that I would major in English in college and go on to be a professional writer or editor. I certainly had fantasies about writing young adult novels. My aunt, a very fine writer herself, having spent a lifetime writing professionally for television and radio certainly encouraged this dream and was quite surprised when I announced that I wanted to be a biology major and go to medical school. If only I had liked three hour laboratory classes a lot more! I can still remember looking wistfully out of the lab windows on beautiful spring days, watching my classmates reading on blankets, sunbathing and tossing Frisbees around while I did experiments in my genetics class. Turned out that I didn’t love genetics quite as much as I loved beautiful spring afternoons hanging around outside with my friends.
Instead, I become a Women’s Studies and Politics double major and my writing stayed primarily confined to critical essays. Writing remained very functional in graduate school as well, primarily employed to write academic papers, case recordings (any social work student can tell you that this is a form of writing that steals ALL joy out of the writing process) and the occasional “feelings” journal required for classes.
My writing as a professional social worker was primarily case notes and formal assessments. LOTS of case notes and formal assessments. The inpatient unit secretary of a psychiatric hospital I worked in after graduate school once told me that she loved reading my psychosocial assessments more than any other social worker she had ever worked with because I always managed to make a patient’s history sound like a novel. I was pleased with this feedback—and more than a little surprised that ANYONE actually was reading my assessments– but never seriously thought about writing again for my own pleasure and self-expression. Well there was a brief foray into Lord of the Rings fanfiction, but the less said about that the better!
When I made a career shift from social work to academia, I was forced to become a good technical writer, taking on long formal reports for funding sponsors and other scientific writing. Just by chance, someone asked me to proof-read a grant application for them, which spun off me off into several years of freelance proof-reading and editing of manuscripts, grant applications and doctoral dissertations. Not really soul-satisfying writing and editing, but this appealed to my obsessive-compulsive side, my lifelong fascination with science (what can I say? I am a nerd!) as well as my deep love for clear and articulate writing.
I honestly don’t remember exactly when or why my typical short Facebook posts started becoming something more. When I created my WordPress page and looked my Facebook history for previous personal essays I had written, I was shocked to discover just how many of these long rambling posts I have actually written and that they date back at least as far as March of 2015. I never made a conscious decision to start writing personal essays—they just started writing themselves. My original pieces were written in response to enraging or devastating events going on in my world, where writing felt like the only way for me to express my inner turmoil. The oldest piece that I found going back to March of 2015 was written after the heart-breaking suicide of the 13 year old son of another Mount Holyoke alum. It was a piece that would not let me be until I had both written it and put it out into the world. I was not concerned about anyone else reading it or it resonating with them, as this deeply personal essay about my own experience of depression simply did not want to stay contained in a document folder on my computer. I could not let go of my grief and my memories without letting go of the essay quite literally.
I have been writing these deeply personal essays for last year and a half because I have to.
These thoughts, these feelings (sometimes a rage that burns like a volcano in my gut, sometimes sadness that feels as deep as an ocean, sometimes a fragile, trembling hope) have become simply too big for my body. Too big for my computer screen and my hard drive. They have started to shout out for oxygen. For an audience. An urgency has developed that I don’t remember ever experiencing before.
I am starting to see myself again as a writer. I am starting to see myself as someone with something a say, a unique voice. I have been very moved over the last year and a half when people respond positively to my writing and tell me that I have also captured their experience, their feelings in a deep way. Writing is so deeply personal and so universal all at the same time. It is my therapy when I am troubled, it is my best way to express myself and connect with the larger world, it is my rebellion against confining roles and boxes.
I am Christine and I am a writer.