On Becoming The Writer You Need To Be
I was 15 years old when my mother drove from Cleveland, OH to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio for a two weeks writers workshop. Only weeks before, my mother found out that I was gay by rummaging through my room and reading my journal. As a teen that loved writing since I was 12, it was the utmost violation to have my mother stumble upon my life’s biggest secret through the medium that I loved. (To learn more about the Kenyon Young Writers Workshop.)
How was I to make sense of my writing then? I thought.
“Don’t be about any of that foolishness while you’re here around these white kids,” my mother commanded before we left her truck to sign up for my dorm, “And you mess around with any boys here, I can have you checked by a doctor.”
I moved into my dorm with a white boy from a state that I don’t remember now. Those first few hours of shaving hands and introducing myself to teenagers from suburbs all around the country. I’d never really befriended a white person before, let alone lived with one in a dorm room. Although a scholarship kid around all these other kids around the country, I didn’t feel othered because of the money my family made.
Above the strangeness of being transplanted to Gambier, OH was the writing workshops. We attended three a day between our meals and had certain workshops sessions dedicated to certain genres. I was enraptured with the idea of filling my three-subject notebook by the end of the two weeks. I walked around campus and found other teenagers writing in various nooks and crannies. At the only bookshop in town, I sat between the aisles and chatted with another black teen writer there for hours. Candace was kind, had a friendly, white smile, and we unraveled our traumas to each other as we licked ice cream cones.
“What do you think it’s gonna be like when you have to go home?” Candace asked.
I thought and shrugged. Too terrified of the answer to say. Coming to Gambier, Ohio, I hadn’t anticipated that for the rest of my life, every place that I went, I would have the choice of whether or not to come out. For the first few days, I sweat in suspense after lying to my roommate in a panic about a girlfriend I had back home. But on the first day as well, I was clocked as gay by another gay teen from Cleveland. Though my writing had outed me to my mother, I now had the choice of how to out myself.
But in this new world where I was honest about who I was, could writing save me?
During those two weeks, I ventured into writing essays and fiction for the first time. I filled my notebooks with sappy poetry about my family, which had fallen apart, and what it felt like to try to grow up in the wake of such intimate destruction. Like everyone, I wrote. I cold read to the class and noted feedback. I wrote an essay about winning a middle school presidential debate and while I read it to the class, they roared with laughter and my heart lept. For the first time in my life, I realized that my writing could move from someone other than me. This alone changed my relationship with it and made it mine. It helped me steal back a part of something that had been stolen from me.
Some mornings, I walked to the library and chose a desk near the window, feeling like I’d jumped into some portal to the future.
To a place where I could be the kind of writer, or rather, the person that I truly wanted to be. Even at 15 years old, there was some part of me that knew that words could change my world. The words that are or aren’t said to us as children matter. So do the words that we exchange with our friends, bullies. The words that we find in the history books, out of the news anchor’s mouth in the morning, on the radio, from our teachers, and lovers. The stories we enter when we are born, the stories we are told as we grow; become the blueprint of who we are.
In one of my favorite. books as a teen, Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, the main character, Dade Hamilton, grapples with his homosexuality, first love, and the crumbling of his parent’s marriage. Near the novel’s middle, Dade finds his father’s journal, something out of character for his parent, and learns of his father’s affair. This newfound intimacy drives home Dade’s desire for his parents to separate, for the illusions to end.
What does it mean for me to read a book about a teenager uncovering his parent’s secret through a journal when my own life was eviscerated by the same act? Literature can be a liberator and an entryway into our future, like the writer, Alexander Chee, once noted about the novel during a Breadloaf talk — “The novel as a remembering an old song.”
Sometimes we are attracted to what we fear the most.
A few months after Kenyon College, I attended my first guidance counselor meeting of my last year at a three-year high school. During the first meeting, each student was made to talk about their collegiate desires with the guidance counselor and a parent present.
“What is that you want to study in college next year?” my guidance counselor asked while skimming her clipboard.
“I definitely like books and writing. I think I’d like to study English.”
The guidance counselor looked up at me from her bang, then to my mother who shifted in her seat and stared at me too.
“Um,” my mother muttered, “We talked about this Prince. It’s good for you to like writing. It helped you get good grades, but you gotta study something that’s gonna help you find work.”
While sitting in that guidance counselor’s office, I was taken back to the day I left Kenyon College. I hugged all my newfound friends and met my mother in her car. We drove back in silence for the first ten minutes. As her nose reddened, I prepared for her to cry or to break into an interrogation. I pulled out my three-subject notebook and turned to a page.
“I wrote something while I was there… Thought you might wanna hear it.”
The poem is in a notebook buried in my closet, but I remember it being about a family brought together, then blown apart by some big explosion. Glass shattering, shards as a symbol for incarceration or giving birth to a child you couldn’t predict or losing your mother tongue; which comes first. I finished reading. My mother kept driving. There was a long silence.
“Seems like that’s all you can see. The pain in all this. I guess you forgot all the work that went into raising you.”
It was only then that the immensity of the truth settled in. Two people could read the same sentence, the same page, the same book, and all left with different ideas. Someone could raise a child and not know them. That child could write in the pursuit of imagination, adventure, and maybe even the desire to be known more by the people around him; and the latter desire may never come true.
Now back in the guidance counselor, I breathed and straightened my back before responding to my mother and guidance counselor, “I’m going on scholarship and it’s gonna be me taking out the loans. Even if I’m 17 when I start college, my parent can’t choose my major, right?”
They both stared back, dumbfounded. My guidance counselor fumbled with the clipboard and my mother rambled. For the next hour, I nodded but neglected to listen. It may have only been the beginning, but even then I knew that I was on the way to becoming the kind of person and writer that I wanted to become.
As a little extra, I’ll end the essays in this series with a musical vibe. This time, it’s Creep by Radiohead, a song I loved back then and that I’ve rediscovered a love for through all of my at-home pandemic karaoke sessions with my roommates.