It is hard for me to declare myself a writer. I’m not comfortable with the title because I feel like it presumes a talent that I’ve never earned. I never studied classic novels with enthusiasm; I never took a proper grammar course. I struggle through cocktail party conversations about literature. I’m still intimidated by my sister’s encyclopedic familiarity with any book, its author and the context that makes the narrative resonant. I write run-on sentences and lists. My dialogue stammers, and I indent too often. I write the way that I talk, imperfectly and with a lot of swearing.
I didn’t learn to write by reading. I didn’t really ever learn to write. And for that reason, saying I’m a writer makes me squeamish. I am quick to defer to anyone with expertise, anyone with a degree in books, anyone with a bookcase of novels they’ve read, and not, like me, merely a collection of spines they’ve never cracked open but were gifted by someone with good intentions.
Let me be the first to tell you, I never meant to be a writer.
But I write.
Unlike most writers I know and admire immensely, I have never been an avid reader. I never holed up in libraries, though the romance of that isn’t lost on me. Still, I remember the smell of the scholastic book fair better than I remember any of books I bought there. Summer reading lists were always more stressful than enjoyable. I never feel I’m turning the page fast enough, and more often than not, when I sit down with a celebrated novel, I get the distinct impression that I am in over my head.
I am, instead, an avid listener. Listening may be my first and only true love. Music was always on in our house growing up, with my dad insisting certain records only be played at an almost deafening volume. He was the first person to talk to me about rhythm. Clave, his favorite beat, could be found in any song, he assured me. So we would listen to his music, my music, any music, and song after song I would try to find where the simple five-beat rhythm fit.
“Look,” he told me once in the car, “look how everybody on the street is dancing to this song, even though only we can hear it.” I got into the habit of taking headphones with me everywhere. Walking in sync to songs, and watching the way everything around me fell in line with the beat. It was a harmony to the world I’d never have dreamed.
“You know the words to everything,” my mom is always amazed. “I can have heard a song all my life and I never know the lyrics, and you hear it once and suddenly there you are, singing along.”
“I just have a good memory,” I tell her. But the truth is, lyrics were the first place I ever heard language that captured how I felt. When I got into fights with my sister as a kid, I used to play songs for her that I felt explained how she’d made me feel. Often, unbeknownst to me at 6 or 7 years old, they were break-up songs, which she would later kindly inform me might not actually be about sisters arguing. Still, music made me feel seen. It gave me a vocabulary to talk about my feelings; it introduced a cadence and clarity to the chaos of my childhood. I found songs that amplified my inner life, that validated my experiences by showing me I wasn’t alone in them.
And then of course, there’s my passion for eavesdropping. If lyrics showed me the elegant boundlessness of direct and impactful language, eavesdropping taught me about people’s extreme aversion to honesty. Especially growing up in the deeply passive aggressive Pacific Northwest. The lengths people go to in order to not say what they really mean has always fascinated me. Listening in on girlfriends dishing to each other over coffee, to break ups and first dates happening at restaurants, the way parents try to keep calm in important conversations with each other over the squabble of their young kids running amok in a grocery store line… so rarely does anyone ever just say what they mean. How, I puzzled, are we ever supposed to genuinely connect to each other if people are so bullshit all the time?
Meanwhile, my number one ambition as a kid was to be the center of attention, and so, naturally, I developed a fascination with becoming an actress. Primarily because fame seemed like a very good option, and red carpets held a lot of appeal. I did not at any point have a talent or passion for actual acting. But lucky for me, reading plays was part of the acting curriculum in my high school, and it was there that I learned the word for my all-time favorite thing about language: subtext.
Subtext was the name for the album underneath the argument that perfectly expressed what couldn’t be said. It was the name for someone saying “fine” and meaning, “I fucking hate you.” It was the very simple rhythm that could be found in any song in any genre.
When I started to write my first play, dialogue seemed almost too easy to construct. It was all rhythm, it was all tension between what’s said aloud and what’s withheld, it was all pauses and stutters, shallow breathing and dropped eye contact. It was the series of lies we tell each other to the beat. It was the rare glimmering moments of honesty. Writing wasn’t easy, but it was addictive. It brought together every piece of being human that had captivated me my whole life.
And playwriting was a gift, because it let me in the backdoor as a writer. It let me make up characters without needing anything but to know the language they spoke. Story was born out of conversations, confessions, concealments. Basic structure was a thing I’d gleaned off binge watching TV shows and my favorite movies. My tumultuous relationship with my dad had shown me no one is ever all good or all bad, that love is complex and not inherently the key to a happy ending. I had enough information to get me started, enough to build worlds out of words that meant something to me. That might mean something to even just one other person some day. So I wrote. And from there, I was fortunate enough to work with a series of unbelievable mentors, the first and most important one being the late and brilliant Andrea Allen, who among a million other things I will never have thanked her for enough, was the first person outside my family to call me a writer.
In a moment of confidence, I recently quit my second job, whittling my schedule down to just one full-time job to give myself time to be the writer I’ve never before been able to admit that I am. And now, here I am, on my first day off in a year and a half, writing
Here I am, with a finished draft of a novel I’m immensely proud of, scripts for several completed plays that I adore, a new pilot I’m muddying my way through, and another novel simmering in the back of my mind. Here I am, headphones on at a local café, watching while people stumble along to a melody they know nothing about. Here I am, grateful beyond measure for every person who has reassured me time and again, that despite the strange path I took to get here, I am a writer.
And so I write.