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Hearing what’s not on the page.

This month’s blog topic on code-switching got me thinking about my current writing project(s) because, on one level, it’s all about code-switching. I don’t mean just knowing the right words to say in different situations. Code-switching is also knowing what not to say and when to not say anything at all. Code-switching is knowing that everything speaks for me: my hair, my skin, my clothes, what’s in my hand to read, my direct gaze or whether I don’t look at someone, my walk, my posture, whether my jaw is set or my smile is unguarded.

English makes me an outsider, linguistic and otherwise, in the following story (poem? Flash fiction? Scene?). It’s a beginning non-draft, still an exploration that will be in progress for a few more drafts, and will likely lead to something else entirely (an essay? A monologue?). It was inspired by this month’s blog topic, but also by Junot Diaz, Irene McKinney, Idra Novey, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Eddie Huang, Richard Blanco, public transportation, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Amherst College, the Virgin Mary… and a lot more that is not immediately obvious to me as I untangle this.

I hope being an experienced code-switcher helps me understand the writers I work with; so much of what needs to be heard is not on the pages they present to me. And I hope my experience as a writer who is always tweaking, developing, and challenging my process gives me the patience and insight needed to guide other writers on their journeys.

 

Code-switching.

It’s reading The New York Times[1] in the Charity Care waiting area[2] of City Hospital.

It’s feeling old school because everyone else is updating their status or texting or talking drama or checking the 84 bus schedule on smartphones[3].

It’s when everyone else chitchats occasionally to pass the time, but no one talks to you.

It’s because your Spanish sounded too white for your brown skin[4] when you answered the lady across from you when she asked what number you’d gotten[5].

It’s understanding what everyone is saying and not saying, and why you get the side-eye each time you say something[6] and even when you say nothing[7].

It’s like breathing.

It’s what you do without thinking.

It’s knowing all the pass codes, and you know them all at once[8].

It’s wondering when your user ID and pass code don’t match.

It’s wondering if your coding is faulty and corrupted, and whether there is an internal system defect that will always deny you access.

It’s what goes through your head in the basement, but for less than a second because Papi is in a hospital bed on the sixth floor[9].

It’s waiting for Charity Care because the hospital bill will cost more than everything Papi and Mami have paid for you to get ahead and be the one to sit, alone, and wait in the basement of the public hospital.


[1] You know not to do the crossword, even though you really want to, and who’s to know that you’re reading a review of that famous Latino author known for his authentic voice, but who is not known by anyone else in the waiting area.

[2] Located at the end of a dead-end hallway in the basement level, because being sent to the bowels of a public hospital doesn’t say “care” but does scream “charity”.

[3] Because everyone sitting in the Charity Care waiting area’s got a smart phone, except you, no one’s got a license, except you, and no one’s got a car, most especially you.

[4] And when your scholarship nerd English made the security guard who’d asked you so loudly Where are you going? do a double take.

[5] The security guard at the hospital’s main desk gives everyone going to the Charity Care waiting area a laminated pass with a number—the order in which you will be called by a case worker—and “Charity Care” printed in large letters so non-English speakers who get lost en route can flash the card for directions to the basement.

[6] Which is why you don’t talk to the kids you grew up with, who hiss she thinks she’s too good for the projects each time you return home from college.

[7] Like the kid in your Writing Class who thought the anonymous piece being workshopped was yours, but it was by the guy from Japan who can’t figure out articles and subject/verb agreement.

[8] Which is why when your Sociology professor told the class you’d all have to work really hard to fall out of the middle class, you knew not to say that being middle class is what you prayed for to the Virgin Mary when you were a little girl.

[9] Worrying, like everyone else in the waiting area and their papis and mamis and tias and brothers in hospital beds upstairs, about missing work.

Speaking Through Silence

The people on TV make no sense. The people in the kitchen make no sense. The words on the street signs make no sense. Nothing makes sense anymore! (except the menus).

My mother was born in a small, mountain town in Italy and still has a handful of family members who live there. She likes to visit every other year, so we have made a number of family pilgrimages throughout the entire country. During these vacations, I (as an English-speaking Italian) have become an expert mime.

My mother graciously acts as an interpreter for my father, sister, and me. However, living as a linguistic outsider is certainly an interesting experience that has taught me a lot about the importance of language. My days as a mime typically begin with me pointing to a pastry behind the glass counter and smiling at the barista, then pointing at my mother who pays. Souvenir shopping is another silent event consisting of smiling and nodding in response to words I only slightly understand. Lunch and dinner are easier; I can recognize most of the foods on menus, but always make sure I am seated near my mother so she can parlay to the waiter or waitress. Communicating with family members (the younger generation) is the easiest because they insist on speaking to me in my own language because they are eager to practice English. The older generation, however, only speak Italian. Therefore, my mother must bridge the gaps when smiling and nodding is no longer sufficient.

My experiences as a linguistic outsider, while often frustrating, have given me a great respect for verbal and nonverbal communication. On those vacations, I often find myself writing a lot more (in English), listening to music and Youtube videos (in English), and reading books I packed with me (in English). It sometimes feels as if I am afraid of losing my native language after spending so many hours miming and surrounded by another language.

The urge to cling to the language we know is particularly important to remember when we, as consultants, work with multilingual writers. They are not only living in a foreign country, but working and/or going to school. The pressure for job security and other responsibilities is intense, and complicated even further by the fact that the people on TV make no sense; the people in the office or classroom make no sense; the words on the street signs make no sense. Nothing makes sense anymore! Unlike my family vacations where no one forces me to speak Italian or criticizes me for making mistakes when I decide to try, multilingual writers (particularly in American universities and workplaces) are often subjected to losing significant points on exams or denied promotions because of their linguistic abilities, no matter how hard they try to improve. Therefore, the work we do in writing centers (as interpreters who help bridge the gaps between writer and professor/boss) makes a difference because we respect where they came from but simultaneously help guide them forward on a new linguistic journey.

A Linguistic Outsider

I returned from Orly Airport in the late fall afternoon, after accompanying my French former-college roommate to the plane that would return her to America. I emerged from the metro station at St. Germain and strolled slowly along the boulevard, looking in the store windows. I loved the French word for window-shopping—laîche-carreaux: licking the windows. I could read French, I had a large vocabulary, and I knew my irregular verbs. My difficulty in speaking French fluently and naturally worried me constantly. I knew the reason: For three months, I had been in the company of Hélène, my elegant, petite friend who had invited me to spend the summer as guests at her aunt’s hotel near the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Wherever we went, Hélène did the talking. It wasn’t that she was selfish or inconsiderate; she was so vivacious and sociable that people turned to her as a sunflower to the sun. Even on the ship coming over from America, the waiters had deferred to her, expecting her to order for both of us. I felt clumsy and inexperienced next to Hélène in her silk dresses, coiffed hair, and high heels. I was tall and thin and—well—American-looking. I practiced dialogues in my room: “Du fromage, mademoiselle?” “Non, merci, j’en ai dejà eu.” But when I was actually in the restaurant, or at a sidewalk café, I was suddenly mute and shy. I couldn’t even joke in French. I answered “Oui” or “Non” and felt miserable.

I wondered what to do with myself that evening. I knew I would have to leave the hotel in a few days, since I could no longer take advantage of the hospitality of Hélène’s relatives. I would find a petit hôtel on the Left Bank. Suddenly, “Annie! Salut, cherie!” cried a voice. And there on the sidewalk in front of the Café Deux Magots was Joan, an American friend from Berkeley, with her French husband, Bernard, and another man. I embraced Joan and Bernard in the French fashion, kissing them on both cheeks, and faced the garçon. “Vous désirez, Mademoiselle?” “Un coup de rouge, s’il vous plaît,” I said.

As my friends introduced me to Jean Claude, a documentary filmmaker, and began chatting about current events and Hélène’s return to America, I realized that I was speaking French—fluent, colloquial French. I ordered another glass of wine and dared not stop to analyze the situation. All I knew was that my awkwardness, my shyness, my feelings of inferiority, my dreaded inhibitions— my refoulements—about revealing who I really was, had fallen away. I was in Paris with people I liked; I was speaking French naturally. I no longer felt tall and thin and out-of-place; I felt pink-cheeked and blonde and, almost, pretty.

I couldn’t help noticing that Jean Claude was directing his attention to me. If Hélène had been there, he would have gravitated to her dark hair, tanned skin, perfect makeup, and soigné dark glasses. He was describing to me a documentary film he was making at a studio in Gennevilliers, a banlieue outside of Paris. “Tell me the plot,” I said. “Oh, but it is charming,” he said, “about a young Frenchman who goes to Morocco to teach school to little Arab children who have never before sat in a chair.” But, alas, he explained, he had reached the stage of production in which he was looking for someone to do the subtitles. The English subtitles. I looked at Jean Claude with my most engaging half-smile of interest, purposefulness, and native-English-speaker skills. “But is it possible that you . . . ?” he asked.

The metro ride to Gennevilliers was long and the car crowded, but I was blithe and happy. My days were better than I could have imagined. The studio was large and beautifully outfitted; the crew was well mannered and amusing; the staff shook hands with me every time we met during the workday. The group adjourned at one in the afternoon for a long lunch at an adjoining café. Best of all was Simone, the cutter. To me, she was as beautiful as a movie star. She had perfect skin, dark, pixie-cut hair, and lovely slim fingers that rapidly clipped and taped the little fragments of film. She and I sat together at lunch, giving me the warm feeling that we were chums.

I did not think I could ever again be so happy as I was during that period in Paris. I was intoxicated with what was to me a high-flying existence. I was going to work every day with French people. I had a best French girlfriend. I spoke French without thinking. Nothing could get any better—but it did. One night, on the metro, Simone, who descended from the train before I did, kissed me on both cheeks and said, “Bonne nuit. Je te verrai demain.” Goodnight. I will see you tomorrow. Simone had called me by the familiar tu: she had tutoyer-ed me. My heart sang.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The advice inherent in this story for consultants working with multilingual writers is fivefold: to encourage them to try to relax when they speak English and not to be self-conscious about what they perceive as their accent; to think in English and not translate from their native language; to smile to themselves as they struggle—and succeed—to use a newly learned word; to keep good notes about what areas need work, such as new rules or new vocabulary; and not to be shy about reading their work aloud, which is imperative to their hearing the way English sounds.


 

10 years of writing, 10 years more

Ten years ago, my writing was a stale and voiceless snoozefest. I was at the prime of teenage irresponsibility – 15, close to 16 years old. I never read any of the books my teachers  assigned for class, but I still managed to ace all my papers. Though, this was the same school where my English teacher strangely threatened us with “I’ll have you guys read for homework!!!” when we were being bad in class. Today, that still makes me laugh. 

Besides completing homework–and I was good student (despite not reading for class)–I hardly wrote for fun. It was something that just seemed to escape me in high school. Like I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, I started to judge my work fiercely when I was a teen. Everything I wrote in middle school and before was garbage and anything I wrote after was even worse (I’m always my harshest critic).

But, eventually, things change and like characters in a novel, you develop. I’ve become more confident in my writing and–wait for my humble brag–I think I can be pretty funny when I write. I’ve developed this voice that seemed to come out of nowhere (a little scary) and I like to think I can hold your attention for a little longer than 40 seconds (let me know if I’m wrong). I do read the books for class now and a helluva lot more outside of it. It’s almost as if reading and writing go hand-in-hand, huh? 😉

Hey, if you’re like me and math isn’t your strong suit, I’ll be 35 in ten years. Yikes. By then, I hope that my voice will be stronger and more independent . Maybe I’ll lose this snarky way of writing; by 35, it won’t be cute anymore.  I always wanted to exude an air of mystery and maturity,  but ask me one personal question and I’ll give you four more answers than you asked for. Same goes for my writing, clearly. Truthfully, I only hope my writing has evolved enough to inspire at least one person to exercise their own voice. We shall see.

Listen. I know how it is. You may think to yourself, “not only is my writing embarrassing, but it’s going to make me look stupid in front of my classmates, too.” I’ve been there and sometimes I still go there. I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s not. Your writing is just as valid as anyone else’s. If that’s not enough, just think of how much you changed, not only as a writer, but as a person. As we become older, you and I, we become better at the things we do. It’s as simple as that.

Real Art: Public and Private Writing (November Blog… Belated)

Some writers create diary entries with the intention of keeping personal thoughts private. And some student writers write for school but shutter at the thought of anyone reading their compositions (except maybe their teachers). For me, writing has always been a way for me to communicate publically and share my thoughts with others. As a precocious nine-year old, I was always looking for an opportunity to write, to show people my writing, and to announce that I was going to be a writer when I grew up. I wasn’t entirely wrong… I teach writing; I suppose that’s close. What I learned as an adult, however, is that writing is not only a great way to communicate with others, but private writing is an incredible therapeutic tool that should not be overlooked because it has psychological and cathartic benefits.

I have penned academic journal posts and blogs for years; however, it had seldom occurred to me to journal my private thoughts. Several years ago, I decided to take on a project on personal writing. I developed and delivered a presentation on Therapeutic Writing for the Summer Seminar at the Center for Writing Excellence at Montclair State. As I was preparing for my presentation, it occurred to me I hadn’t done much (if any) personal journaling as an adult, despite my advocacy for therapeutic writing. At this point, I thought I should try it out, but with grad school, jobs, etc. it didn’t come to fruition until years later.

Even though I had presented on the benefits of writing therapy, and my argument was based on scholarship, I still viewed it as just a nice thing to do when I had time, which I didn’t. Years later I was in the midst of a personal crisis, and one day I just “accidently” started personal-journal writing in order to cope with my thoughts and feelings. I wrote to “release,” and I never shared my writings. I didn’t even keep them. At this point, I don’t even remember what I wrote. I just remember that this act of writing helped me. At this point, I had been holding my thoughts and feelings captive for months, and when I started writing them down on paper, it was like I was freeing them from my mind.

So, as a public writer who likes to write for the purpose of communicating with others, I can now say that I truly embrace private writing both in theory and in practice. I also now realize how liberating private writing can be, especially as an English major and teacher. One trick I found is to just freewrite and not worry about writing conventions… grammar error?… fragment?… sloppy, incomplete thought? Failing to capitalize, properly punctuate or use Oxford commas (puns intended)… Who cares? (Okay, I admit… it still pains me to exclude an Oxford comma even in private writing). There’s a lot of pressure involved with writing to communicate (and that’s a blog topic for another day); however, writing is art, and private writing can be a real art… your art.

Writing: The Ten Year Plan

To understand what I will be writing ten years from now, we must first understand what I write now, or better yet, maybe we should start with why I write now. After all, who is me (whoever that is), what seems presumptuous to utter as it would make me both criticizer and critic (which makes me feel a bit Ouroborosly bloated), when is now always now, unless it’s ten years from now, then when would be then, where is irrelevant to ones and zeros, go and chase the tail back to the teeth of hyper text protocols, ask a noisy zero where, and listen if you hear it yawn above halfway to one, but why is a question I will answer honestly, why indeed. I write now as a defense against the madness that is today. I write because this world was bequeathed to us by a yesterday full of passionate idiots, maniacal madmen, and far too many sad, quiet, thoughtful sots. I do not mean to disparage the sots, I find the same sort of refuge in words that the sot finds at the bottom of a barrel. Les sots et les mots; les sots de mots. A fuss of words or whiskey. Le fossé des mots ou whisky. Womp, Womp. Words are my refuge from a world gone mad. But, because I am very much a part of that world, albeit – of it, but not in it, instead of in it, but not of it-, I am possessed by the same madness that plagues this world. Its 140 character limit. Its reality tv stars. Its book of faces. Its googly, Googles. Its Google forsaken BLOGS! It is a sort of all sides madness. It’s the sort of madness that shakes you down to your toes and makes you wake with your thumb, middle and pointing fingers numb, (all opposable thumbs be damned, three fingers pointing back at you, & a bird flipped to infinity) having clenched inward so hard to discover something inside yourself other than what is outward, only to find there is no rabbit in the hat – only a looking glass. Art is still that looking glass, although hand held, subjective, a selfy stick pointing outward. What about the author – still dead? I should hope so, less he be forced to suffer the dye and the microscope of the outrages critic. What I write is a reflection of the madness I see. It makes me happy to get it right. Like I’ve captured the last plague carrying critter in a once great mansion irreversibly ravaged by lies. I imagine in ten years, I will be doing much the same. I think, ten years from now, I will write perfect, dirty poems, of the highest order. The sort that ought to be carved in secret (in the middle of the night) meticulously, using stencils, on a bathroom stall, only to be removed with great care and placed on the walls of the MOMA for all to admire.

Writing Ten Years Hence?

Because I am in the December of my life, any further writing for me in ten years’ time is highly unlikely. One task that might have remained would be a memoir; however, I started writing my reminiscences some years ago, publishing them privately in 2014, because I wanted my grandchildren to have a chance to read them while I was still alive and to discuss any aspects that interested or puzzled them.

This memoir is called The Fair Adventure. The following three paragraphs are the introduction to the book:

The title for these reminiscences is from Shakespeare’s King John: “The day shall not be up so soon as I / To try the fair adventure of tomorrow.” And, because I am ever mindful of ways to try to write beautiful English sentences, I want to point out that this quotation is a perfect example of the so-after-a-negative-in-a-comparison usage: “not so soon as I.” I have often toyed with the idea of writing a booklet on usage, using literary quotations to make the point. For example, “He cursed himself for making believe for a minute that things were different from [not than] what they are” (The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf). “What a pity he has forever vanished from the hard and dusty paths of life—unless Donatello be actually he [not him]” (The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne). There, we’ve cleared up those syntactical issues first off.

When I was about ten or eleven, The Fair Adventure was one of my favorite books. It features Serena Page McNeill, the youngest of a big family: Alison is married with kids; James is a professor; Robin is in law school; Jean, newly engaged, is just finishing nursing school; and Page is graduating from high school. She lives in a small town in the South—the town where her father is a beloved professor at the local college—but aspires to attend a women’s college in the East, Van Welmar, where she can study art and live in an ivy-covered dormitory. She passes the college boards well above average but does not score high enough to win a scholarship. Her doting Scottish father (who, like our father, quotes Shakespeare at the dinner table) cannot afford to send her away; thus, off she must go to Middleton, the public college where her father teaches and all her high school friends are headed. At the end of this particular summer, each unit in her family joins together to contribute something to a “scholarship fund” to enable her to attend Van Welmar after all. The principle? From each, according to his ability; to each, according to his need [as Karl Marx wrote in 1875].

The point of using that quote as a title for my memoir is that I was the youngest member of my family, and I never felt, for one minute, that my parents and my two elder sisters were not rooting for me, were not there to help me in any way they could, to mourn over my disappointments and to cheer for my successes. At the same time, I would have done anything for them—thrown myself under a bus, if need be, or donated a vital organ. And, all in all, life has been a fair adventure for me, a series of engrossing jobs teaching, writing, and editing, experiences living and working in foreign lands, serious challenges and choices, loyal friends, endless reading, and, best of all, a loving and demonstrative family of my own.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

The third paragraph of my memoir above may contain the seeds of my absorption with my job at CWE. Perhaps our writers are my new family—my nieces and nephews, or, more accurately, my grandnieces and grandnephews—with whom I want to share my lifelong experience with writing: thinking through and building on the structure of a sentence; relating it meaningfully to what comes before and afterward; savoring words before choosing the appropriate one; experimenting with figures of speech; seeking specificity not vagueness; being as clear, cogent, and honest as possible; and trying to communicate an idea or an image that is unique because it belongs to them.

 

 

Writing Through the Years

Ten years ago, in 2007, I was 14. I graduated from eighth grade and started high school. At that stage in my life, the standard 5-paragraph essay was longest product I produced. I had never written a research paper, had no knowledge of MLA, and never planned on going to graduate school. Clearly, a lot has changed, especially regarding my writing style.

As an undergraduate English major, effective writing skills were crucial. It began with the two freshmen composition courses, where I learned to use social and political current events as fuel for argumentative essays, and how to close-read texts for literary analyses. From there, a variety of novel and writing-intensive courses helped me hone my skills as a student and writer.

I minored in Creative Writing, focusing on Fiction, and was able to strengthen my knowledge of plot conventions and dialogue through workshopping with my peers. My Introduction to Fiction Writing was the only course in my college career where I felt everyone in the class had bonded as a family. I was truly sad to leave it at the end of the semester. Since those courses, I have dabbled in various creative projects, hoping to one day unite my random ideas into a publishable novel.

My experience in the Teacher Education program at MSU broadened my horizons by serving as an opportunity to write lesson plans, community and student reports, reflection papers, and constructive criticism/positive feedback. I then decided to pursue a Master’s degree in English with a concentration in American Literature. Again, my writing style grew with me. I was no longer simply stating my opinion of the Walk on Wall Street, analyzing why the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood is an antagonist, or modifying lesson plans; graduate writing requires perfection, new innovations, and publishable quality, which puts a greater amount of pressure on me as a writer. However, challenge is often the greatest catalyst for learning, and I am grateful for each experience.

Ten years from now, in 2027, I will be thirty-four. By then I will have graduated with my Master’s degree and hope to have a career in writing. This will be another change because I will no longer be writing essays for a course grade or GPA, but will likely be working on different projects and materials with my reputation on the line. I am confident that my experience writing through the years will provide beneficial skills to help me achieve success in my career-based writing.

Reflecting on past, present, and future writing styles is important for all writers at any age because life often takes us on paths we do not expect. Thus, we change as people and naturally our writing changes with us. We become more mature and professional; we revise old work and give it new life; we teach ourselves and acquire new skills from every experience we have. Eventually, our writing will be all that is left of our history. People will read what we have written and will piece together what our world looked like. Thus, writing will continuously serve a purpose that deserves reflection.

Nothing to it, but to do it.

As a self-identified static ball of anxiety, when I received the syllabus for my first ever creative writing class in college, my heart immediately began to pound against my chest, my hands turned ice cold, yet clammy, and it felt like my body was irradiating nervous tension throughout the room and everyone could see it.

The syllabus was three pages long in the standard 12px Times New Roman font, with loads of repetitive details that I saw in all my other classes, but the only line that seemed to glare back at me was the required workshop presentation. Dread swept over me. I immediately tried rationalizing picking myself and leaving the classroom mid-introductions (another favorite classroom activity of mine), and yet I remained. “Don’t be dramatic…” I scolded myself.

Blessed (or cursed, depending on how you want to look at it) with a last name that helps me practice my grade-A neurotic-influenced procrastinating nature, I was able to choose my presentation date first when we did the sign-ups in alphabetical order. Shamelessly, I picked the very last day possible, hoping it would never come.

Well, my wish almost came true. This was the year good ol’ Sandy hit and school was closed for a week. I thought that maybe I can somehow get away without presenting, but really, I was just lying to myself. I knew that I had to do it—it wouldn’t be fair if everyone else had to and I didn’t.

I should mention that the class was Creative Nonfiction—aka: Shy & Private Person’s Worst Nightmare 101. Or maybe that’s just my nightmare. Anyway, December 6th was fast approaching and I had to be strategic in what I wanted to present to my classmates. I remember thinking to myself, “Don’t reveal too much,” and “You’re an emotional wreck. Don’t write anything that will make you cry.” Even though our classroom was a safe-haven and everyone in it was respectful, I still didn’t want to let anyone in. “Keep a safe distance and please, for once, don’t embarrass yourself?” At this point in my undergrad, I was quite proud of my self-depreciating sense of humor and figured to be ahead of the game: make fun of myself before anyone can make fun of me. The tone of my story was set. I refused to write a depressing story about a depressing episode in my life—too much misplaced pride mixed in with an irrational fear of looking helpless.

All the while, I complained to my partner about this assignment. “Nothing to it, but to do it,” he said. And that was all I needed.

The story I wrote was probably corny (excuse me, as I peer over my glasses, but do the kids still use this word today?), but it explored the relationship between me and my partner–my co-pilot–and our support system. I wrote this short story with an emotion I didn’t know I was capable of conveying. It highlighted my messy and awkward personality in it, my (un)award-winning self-deprecating humor, and a small touch of my heart.

I love my short story now, but moments before I had to read it, I thought its proper place was in my middle school’s literary magazine. Particularly, when they were scrambling to meet the 20-page mark and were accepting any submission coming in from bright-eyed 7th graders. It belonged somewhere in the middle of the magazine, too, where it would go unread, due to poor attention span and so many words! But then, when I realized my personal apocalypse was about to commence, I took a deep breath and said quietly to myself, “Nothing to it, but to do it.”

It felt like I entered face first into the fiery pits of Hell while the rest of my body was submerged in Antarctic waters. I could almost see the steam coming off my skin as I read the first sentence aloud. And then it was okay. I remember smiling as I read, which made some of my words come out funny, and after what felt like an hour’s worth of hearing my own voice, reading my own words, of my own deeply personal story, it was done and I did it.

My classmates laughed and I didn’t cry. I probably forgot to breathe.

This short story, I’m still convinced, is the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like I own my writing. In all its roughness, pre-critiques, and silly typos and grammatical mistakes, it is still Mine, dedicated to someone who helped me in ways I thought were too hard to put into words. I received about eleven copies back, adorned in different colored ink and handwriting styles, with productive and helpful feedback (so much that I applied it to my future writing projects (ex: Watch out for those hyperboles! There’s too many interjections!­) (Side note: I still struggle with both of these, clearly)), but the feeling I had when I wrote the original remained unmatched. In under three pages, I accomplished many things and overcame my (many) silly fears. Really, there was nothing to it, but to do it. :)

Sharing my writing for the first time–again

I’ve been writing stories ever since I could remember. As a kid, I would bring a notebook with me everywhere–to school, on car rides, to my friend’s houses. I didn’t even have to write, and half the time I wouldn’t–I just had to have it with me, just in case.

When I was younger, I would let everyone and anyone read my stories, even though they were all cripplingly embarrassing. My pride and joy was a story named “Hamster Island” that I wrote and illustrated in third grade. For an entire year, I wrote through the perspective of a dog. I wrote graphic murder mysteries to try to shock my babysitters and my fifth grade teacher. By middle school, I was writing hundreds of pages of fanfiction and clearly inserted myself into some of my favorite shows. I was stubbornly proud of these horrific pieces of writing, though years later I would drive to a garbage can far, far away to dispose of them.

I started to become more secretive about my writing once I moved towns and entered high school. That’s when the stories became less about fantasy and more grounded in reality; they became about my life, my experiences. They were personal. For years, I wouldn’t let anyone read what I had written.

At the end of my junior year of high school, my English teacher asked us to write a short narrative. I had moved almost three years earlier, but I still missed my old home. Before New Jersey, we had lived on the East End of Long Island. Every day after school, I would drop my backpack and go for a walk on the beach, even when it was absolutely frigid. We were one of few families that lived there year-round. Sometimes I’d run through the yards of empty houses and peek through the dusty windows at the furniture covered in sheets. There was something calming about having so much space, about waking up and falling asleep to the view of the water. When the moon was high in the sky, it would sear a white line across the bay. During a storm, the placid water would turn into  whitecaps, which would break and carry on the wind to lash against our windows. In the winter, the whole bay would ice over, and the wind from the blizzards would create mountains of snow and ice that my brothers and I would try to scale. One time, during an unseasonably warm November day, I fell in a river that my friends had just successfully jumped across. We ended up swimming home in our clothes; we tied our shoes together and threw them into the water in front of us, our laughter echoing across the empty beach.

Our congested suburban town in New Jersey was an hour’s drive from the water. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to walk without someone asking, “What are you doing?” After school, I often just went home and stayed in my room.

So I wrote about my old home.

A few days after receiving the narratives, my teacher said he had chosen a few of his favorites to read out loud. He would read them anonymously and see if we could figure out who had written each piece. We were advised to keep our poker faces as he read.

He started with mine. I stopped breathing after I heard the first line. I looked down and felt the blood rush to my face. I tried not to smile, but barely succeeded at holding it back. When he finished reading, the class clapped enthusiastically.

For me, this was one of my most rewarding pieces of writing because it was the first time I had shared something so personal–and by a stroke of good luck, had it warmly received. I’d later go on to study creative writing at college and get ripped to shreds in the writing workshops, but I enjoyed the heck out of it. I began craving constructive criticism and the shared experience of making meaning. After that day in high school, writing stopped being a solitary act.