Look on the Write Side

October 26, 2009

I am a Writer

Filed under: Writing Life — Cee Dunsheath @ 2:33 am

It took me a long time to come out of the writer “closet.”  My husband forced the admission from me early on when he tried to stage an intervention, fearing drug use or a previously undisclosed psychosis caused my sudden bouts of unexplained contemplative stupor. Then my brothers and sisters found out when I won my first writing award (Thank you, NJRW!) and needed a safe place for my tender ego to bask. But it’s only been a couple of years – a radar blip, percentage-wise, in my life-long pursuit of publication – that anyone outside that protective circle has been in on the secret.

There’s so much pressure, mostly from an internal valve, once your dream is out there for the world to see.  After frequent trips to writers’ conferences tipped off my co-workers, I’ve often seized up writing a memo or email for my day job because of a nagging paranoia that now people expected me to be “creative,” whatever that means, and I wouldn’t measure up.  Every word I wrote was like Wednesday morning calisthenics at a nudist colony: out there; flapping in the breeze; there’s just no hiding anything. It’s gotten so bad that I stopped sending Christmas cards – I kid you not! – because a pithy one-line greeting evaded me.  “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!” just didn’t cut it from a writer, for Heaven’s sake!  What would people think?

Of course, I knew exactly what they’d think. They’d think I was a fraud, a poser, a wanna-be that had a couple of good chapters in her (certified by a wooden plague with my name engraved on a golden rectangle I’m forever re-gluing in place). They’d think I was a dreamer without the talent to back it up.

What’s worse, part of me would agree with them. I’d become crippled with fear they were right. I’m not good enough.

I live in Jersey, which breeds a certain toughness into its citizens as sure as it breeds mosquitoes and chemical plants. As if driving the Turnpike weren’t enough, all my life I’ve worked with the public – whether from behind a mall cash register, a bar, a tollbooth at Giant’s Stadium, or currently, behind the front desk at a public library.  And let me tell you true, you ain’t seen nothing until you work behind the desk at a public library.  I’ve thrown more drunks out of there than I ever did at the bar, been cursed at by bums and harried mothers alike, been phone-stalked, lied to, hit on, harassed, and once even pelted with coins for stopping a junkie using our copy machine to counterfeit doctors’ notes. Just another day within the hallowed walls of a sacred institution to toughen the skin. And yet nothing strikes terror deeper into my bones that having someone say, “So, I hear you’re a writer.” 

Just typing that phrase gives me cramps because it inevitably leads to: Have you sold anything? Logically, I know that art of any sort needn’t be monetarily compensated to prove its worth. But yet there’s something about being “accepted for publication” that legitimizes the hours spent at the computer, the forests of paper submissions, the gallons of ink, sweat and tears. Besides, my characters want to live! They have stories to share, hope to spread. And when I have to answer, “Um… no.  Not yet,” and slink off like a kid who didn’t get picked for Dodge Ball, it all comes back to: I’m not good enough.

That’s the dark side of coming out. The judgement, real or perceived, from outside and inside your own protective circle, outside or inside your own skin. But there’s a bright side to putting your dream where your mouth is.

I never would have won that first award or the handful of others that’ve followed if I didn’t step out into the light. If I didn’t make the leap, gently float my babies through the bull rushes, I’d never have found an agent who believes in my work as much (sometimes, I think, even more) than I do. By standing up and announcing, albeit as fidgety and caffeine-infused as a first-time speaker at an AA meeting, “Hi, I’m Cee and I’m a writer,” I’ve welcomed into my world some of the most amazing people: other writers who deal with characters waking them up in the middle of the night or worry over plot points (What the heck are they? Where do they go? Do I have the blasted things in there?!?) or can actually tell me what a corpse looks like after ten days in the river or simply commiserate over a mutinous muse, another rejection, life getting in the way of art.

I’ve picked the brains of experts. I’ve been supported and encouraged by writing masters. I’ve found friends so true they’d probably show up for Wednesday morning calisthenics if I’d ask them to. And I’ve learned, oh how I’ve learned – just opening up and putting myself out there, I’ve received guidance, instruction, tips, inspiration and motivation. I like to think I’ve even helped others strengthen not only their work but their belief in themselves as well.

Most importantly, every time I publicly lay claim to the title of Writer, whether it’s followed by the dreaded question, misplaced awe, or Jersey-style sarcasm, the roots of it dig deeper inside me. My foundation grows stronger, the fear backs off.

I am a writer.  And that’s more than good enough.



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