You Are Already A Writer


Note to reader: Unable to find a link to this essay, I have retyped excerpts with the greatest of reverence. Proper works cited below.

I was educated, as most of us were educated, to believe that writing is something very special. That it’s not the same as talking. That it’s what published authors do. That it is done by people who understand the esoteric language of literature. I was given an education by a local church in St. Louis. I worked hard to learn that esoteric language; I worked hard to hide the fact that I grew up poor, so I could sound like T.S. Eliot and other poets with privileged education.

To a certain extent, I succeeded. I had plays published; I had a libretto performed in Carnegie Hall. But eventually, while in an MFA program, another student, Margaret, changed my writing life by insisting that I write about my absent father. He left us when I was four; I had been taught to hate him, and I did. Truly, I had no desire to write about him; I felt I didn’t know anything about him. One night Margaret was particularly insistent. She talked about her own father, and urged me to write about mine. After she went home, I sat on my couch for several hours, unable to sleep. Finally in the middle of the night a little rhyme began to sing itself in my mind. This is how it came, with never a word changed:

Daddy was a bad man
He made Mama cry
I love him, Mama said,
but love can die.

Daddy was a weak man
He told a lie
I loved him, Mama said
but love can die.

You look like your daddy,
green, green of eye
I love you, Mama said …

In that nursery rhyme, I learned the deepest terror of my childhood. Even in the poem, the fear is unspeakable, and so the last line only comes as an echo in the silence of the omitted line: but love can die. It was the simplest of verses, coming no doubt straight from the four-year old child that I had been. I thought I was writing about my father, but what the poem revealed to me was the fear I held even at four that my mother would stop loving me like she stopped loving my daddy. I’ve never offered that verse for publication, but it opened a door through which, later, a whole book came, my memoir, Wake Up Laughing.

Deep, honest writing comes with our most intimate voice, the voice that comes from our subconscious, the voice that gives us memory and imagination. It’s the voice we use with best friends and lovers, with siblings and parents. Most people don’t understand the treasure they carry in their own subconscious minds. I didn’t understand it myself until one day in my 30s, when my only sibling, my brother, came to my door. He told me one time that he’d been an alcoholic since the day he took his first drink, right after he was dismissed from a second orphanage at age 17. On that day when he came to my door, he was homeless, frequently in jail for being what was then called “a drifter.” My brother was my best friend, and he was desperately lost.

He took a piece of paper out of his billfold and handed it to me. It was old and creased, and it had his handwriting on it — handwriting that I believed only I, in all the world, could read. It was about “motorcyclists from hell” who were chasing him, a brilliant metaphor for alcoholism. In that moment, I realized that my brother was as much an artist as I would ever be, but no one would ever know it, because he couldn’t spell, he couldn’t write legibly, he couldn’t type, and he didn’t have a formal education. The shock of recognition I experienced that day — that being an artist is about being brave and telling the truth in your own voice — is the origin of my workshop method, the Amherst Writers and Artists model; the origin of my books on writing, and the film that has been made about my work with low-income writers. Everyone is already an artist with words.

Not being able to write is a learned disability. If you can talk to your best friend or lover, if you can make your brother or sister laugh, move them to anger or to sadness with your stories, you can write. If you can daydream, you can write. If you can cuss, pray, joke, tell what happened in the hospital cafeteria to a friend — you can write. So don’t tell me you can’t write. I know better …

I have worked with thousands of writers, and I can tell you this: Most of what I do is help people unlearn the lesson they were taught in school: “I can’t write.” Everyone can write. Everyone is already a writer.

Works Cited:
Schneider, Pat. “You Are Already A Writer.” Ed. Janet Tallman and Caryn Mirriam-Goldbert. The Power of Words: Social and Personal Transformation through the Spoken, Written and Sung Word.  Keene, New Hampshire: Transformative Language Arts, 2007. 383-87. Print.