My Favorite Things: Writing

Those old-school black and white composition notebooks were my favorite for writing down stories as a kid. When family came at Christmas, I wouldn’t let them leave until everyone had spent some time with at least one of them. I liked coming up with elaborate plots but never finished stories.

I also loved to write poetry—both serious and silly. I wrote about my parents’ divorce, about being lonely, and about the ill-fated love stories of my favorite soap opera characters. I once had  two poems I’d submitted get published. The anthology they’re in should still be at my mom’s house somewhere. In high school, I had to write a poem for English class and I dedicated it to a crush not knowing we would be reading them aloud in class. I still remember mine by heart.

I know this great guy
He’s got quite a nice body
If you ask me what I think
I think he’s a hottie
I’ll go to his swim meet
And hope he does well
But even if he doesn’t
His speedos look swell

Did I mention we also had to hang our poems on the classroom walls? Oh, high school! Fortunately, this fellow wasn’t in my class. But, his friend told him that I’d hid a love poem to him on the wall behind the bookshelf .

I kept a journal nearly every day from middle school up until very recently. I have the last ten years of them with me here in DC. I still journal, just not as much. In my heyday, however, I could easily have spent an hour or two writing down my thoughts about my aspirations, boys, prayers, and the quotidian. I’ve stopped using men’s names in my journal these days because, as I read back over old ones, I don’t even remember who these clowns are I was so hung up over. Instead, I now use the Chinese character for ‘he/him’ unless I’m seriously digging the guy.

I was strangely particular about journaling, too. I had to use the same pen throughout. I didn’t like mixing colors and ink types. If I ever left my pen home on holiday, I begrudgingly used the one that came in the hotel room. Always ballpoint. Always a disappointment.

As an undergrad, I almost never had to write. It was a shock having to write papers over 5 pages in grad school. As a music education major I sang, played, or beat most of my assignments. I did have to write one paper, that I recall, in my music history class and chose to write it on the role of the supernatural in German opera.

By grad school, it had already been years since I’d written anything of substance. Wanting to improve, I started a writing group. It was mainly for technical writing, but I put myself on a diet of every book I could get my hands on about writing in general. My technical writing was always a little too ornate and I feel like I never did quite get it down. My first large research paper was about private book collecting during 10th to 12th century China. I never encountered a pair of eyes that did not glaze over when I started talking about my research.

In Laos, I got a writing fellowship with an arts policy website back in the States. I got to write about some of my favorite topics: museums in Asia, international exchange, and cultural policy. I got to work with a team of editors who helped me tighten my writing and think more about structure. There were monthly phone calls and lots of back and forth with editors producing better and better drafts. It was A LOT of work, far more than I had expected, but a great learning experience.

About two months ago, a woman asked me out of the blue at a mutual friend’s birthday if I was a writer and I said no. She said I seemed creative and told good stories and said I should be. I explained that I blog, and I had had a writing fellowship, and I like to journal, and I’ve guest blogged for a few websites but I was just kind of putzing around. There was no method to my madness, except to go back and make sure I had commas where they belonged—my friend Suzy had chastised me once for not having nearly enough and said she wanted to buy me a bag of them. Now every time I edit, I think about using up my invisible bag of commas.

I’ve done a little writing since that conversation. People have said it’s good, but I couldn’t tell you why. I have a dress like that. Apparently, red’s my color.

My friend, who is actually a writer, and I have been meeting weekly to edit each other’s stuff. I read her essays and feel like a fake. Her stuff sounds good to me—sophisticated, polished, like something someone would spend money on. My stuff just sounds like my thoughts. With a few extra commas. It sounds like my emails and my journal and my kitchen table conversations. It sounds…amateur…ordinary.

Speaking of email, I do write a monthly email update to a close group of friends. One of my friends always writes back that she loves my writing. I thought she was being nice. Or just that she enjoyed hearing what was going on with me. But now others have said it too. But I still feel like I’m just putzing around.

If I ran into that woman who asked me if I was a writer today, I’d still say no. But I’d add that I have some thoughts on some things that people seem to appreciate. And it’s nice to feel like maybe I have something to add.

The other day I told my friend that all this writing feels like when I first started playing softball in high school. At the beginning of the season my very first year, I’d make a few catches and hit a few balls by what seemed like complete accident. I didn’t know what I was doing, maybe it was adrenaline, maybe it was that I didn’t overthink what I was doing. I can’t be sure. I do know as the season progressed that I got worse (excruciatingly so, and I used to beg to be benched if there were extra players), but I’m hoping that’s where the similarities end.

I went back and looked at old entries on this blog this morning. I cringed a little, because I could see clearly I’m a better writer than when I started four years ago. I thought for a moment about going back to rewrite a few old posts, but, in the end, I just settled on putting in missing commas instead.

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