No one in my family wrote. That is, if you count “writing” as the kind of writing that gets validated in academic settings: journalism, opinion pieces, blogs, essays, book reviews, literary criticism, short stories, and poetry. E-mail wasn’t even a word when I was growing up. My mother wrote shopping lists. Notes to my teachers. Sometimes she wrote the occasional letter or card or college essay when she went back to school for her associate degree.
My parents never told me to write, or not to write. I just wrote. At the end of each school year, for example, I jotted down how I had changed from the year before, everything I could do differently: Write cursive. Multiply. Walk to the bus top alone.
But what possessed me to take a pen to paper and move it across a page? Who encouraged me to write?
A cousin put my first journal in my hand. I was nine, and the journal was baby breath’s pink. Its cover featured a kitten chasing a ball of twine. My cousin wrote an inscription inside the front cover. She told me to record my dreams and thoughts and ambitions. Until that moment, no one but me seemed to care about what went on inside a little girl’s head. Yet, the journal’s inscription bore a symbolic message that informs my work as a writer to this day: My writing and what I have to say are a necessary contribution to the world. It’s the same message I impart to you, my students.
Your writing and what you have to say are a necessary contribution to the world.
I initially started writing diary entries to get acquainted with my voice and to record moments of my life I wanted to remember. I write today to interrupt silences and to make meaning out of my failures or losses. I write to understand the other, the margins. I write to ask, not to answer.
What did it mean that my mother was chronically disabled for so many years?
How did I, as an adolescent and young adult, define myself against her illness?
What was I thinking at 21, when I boarded a plane for Glasgow, Scotland, to work in a country I could barely find on a map?
And then, two years later, why did I leave Scotland for another foreign country – the Louisiana Delta – to write about religion among people whose faith I did not share? What was I running away from? What was I running toward?
In each essay or book chapter or poem I create, I am writing toward and through such questions.
Like Joan Didion, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
I write to seek, never to find.
Writing has, in turn, given me a life I never could have envisioned when I was nine and first writing in a baby’s breath pink journal with a cat on the cover.
Writing took me overseas and into parts of the United States I initially feared –– the Deep South, for example. Writing introduced me to my husband. Writing made me a teacher. Writing gave me permission to find myself, to be myself, to live with less guilt and shame or a need for approval.
I can find a thousand reasons to write, and a thousand reasons not to write. I chose to listen to the thousand voices that tell me to write, and I want all of you to do the same. Right now. Tune out every single voice that says you’re not good enough –- or too good –– to be here.
Write when you’re tired, sad, angry, hungry, guilty, ashamed, sick, scared, happy, anxious, wide awake.
There will never be a perfect time to write. The perfect time is now.
Remake the world with your writing. Rebuild yourself. In the words of Wendell Berry, “Practice resurrection.”
Show up in this room. Show up on each page you read, each page you create.
Be who you are when everyone can see you. Be who you are when no one can see you.
Listen. Seek. Question.
Get serious. Own your words. Make them sharp or shiny or beautiful. Make them everything that matters.