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Why I Write

I write because I have to.

Not in an emotional, spiritual, “I have a calling” kind of way. Though maybe that too.

When I say I have to, I mean I have been given explicit instructions to do so, by people whose authority I am not interested in questioning.

In 8th grade, my literature teacher Mrs. Houlihan was passing back graded essays. When she got to my desk, she put down the paper - an A - and whispered, “If you don’t do something in your life that has to do with writing, I will come back and haunt you.”

Every once in a while I check the local paper in my hometown to see if Mrs. Houlihan is still alive. As long as she is still above ground, I figure I have at least a little more time to figure out how to be a writer in the way she would have wanted me to. Because even though that was the plan in the 8th grade, somewhere along the way I veered just a little bit off course.

After completing my degree in creative writing from one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, I did what every great writer would do - I got a job teaching high school math in rural Mississippi. I distinctly remember fantasizing about my life as a teacher in the summer before I started the job, getting off work at 3 PM, sitting in the rocking chair on my classic southern wraparound porch and penning the next great American novel. I don’t have to tell you how that one worked out.

And for the next thirteen years, I’ve jumped from job to job, bopping around the world of education to find the role that fits me best, all the while ignoring the one role I knew I was supposed to fulfill. Stretching my writing muscles through blog posts and website copy and paper-grading and truly some of the most compelling emails you’ll ever read in your life, as if all of that would ever be enough.

Every once in a while, I would read a good book or think of Mrs. Houlihan and catch the bug again. I’d write an outline, or brainstorm a novel idea, or talk to a friend about the work I wanted to create. I even got so far as to write an entire book proposal for a book that never came to be. And always at some point it would get a little bit too real, a little bit too scary, and I would retreat back into the safe and reasonable career I had built for myself.

Because writing is wonderful. Writing is challenging and also somehow so easy, writing helps me make sense of the chaos and create a small piece of the world that didn’t exist before, a piece that’s entirely mine, a piece that has the potential to brighten someone else’s day or see the world the way I do, if even just for a minute or two.

Writing is wonderful. But being a writer is terrifying.

I don’t know how to be a writer. No one ever explained it to me. I don’t know what time of day to start writing, or how much I should get done in that day, or when it is acceptable to stop. I don’t know how to sell a book or an idea of a book, and I don’t know how to pay the bills while I’m figuring all that out. And because I didn’t understand it, and no one ever thought to explain it to me, it never really felt like an option. Not for a responsible, independent, self-sustaining young woman who lives her life one well-planned and fool-proof decision at a time.

I read somewhere recently that your 30s is the time when you unlearn all of the bullshit that the world taught you to be and finally become the weirdo that you planned to be when you were a kid. So maybe now it’s time. After all, Mrs. Houlihan isn’t getting any younger.


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