To apply to my MFA program, I had to write a personal statement. For anyone who’s curious, this sums up why I’m doing this to myself.
I have a hard time calling myself a writer, like it’s some sort of merit badge I’m trying to earn. It doesn’t matter how much I love it, or how often I hear I have a knack for it (thanks Mom). It always feels out of reach. Well-intentioned non-relatives have also offered encouragement throughout my life, albeit with mixed results. My third grade teacher asked me one Halloween to read my gothic horror story aloud to the class. I panicked, so she had to get a more popular boy to read it for me while I hid in the bathroom.
Flashing forward a few years, I got used to hiding my love of writing like a pet rat in my coat, feeding it just enough to stay alive and letting it poke its head out once in a while to surprise people. After college, I stumbled around in search of a career, instead accumulating an odd assortment of jobs, starting as a receptionist at a homeless shelter near Penn Station in Manhattan, and culminating with creating and producing television game shows for Game Show Network in Los Angeles. The journey from then to now has been a meandering path of non-sequiturs: I’ve been a social worker. I’ve investigated police misconduct. I thought I wanted to go to law school; I got cold feet. I thought I wanted to become a chef, became a line cook, got cold feet again. I produced documentaries, moved from New York to Los Angeles, and ultimately fell into developing reality television. Whenever I could, I’d find brief moments to stretch my writing muscles at the office, adding unnecessary flourishes to the driest of memos and reports. I would suppress these signs of addiction by repeating the mantra that I needed to find a Career with a capital C. I needed all the glamour of bi-monthly direct deposit, PPO plans and a 401k. I needed to be a responsible adult.
I have always been a chronic daydreamer. Hiding in my bedroom, I’d tear through Roald Dahl, John Bellairs, Lloyd Alexander, and Susan Cooper. When the books slipped from my hands, I’d go cross-eyed staring at the ceiling, conjuring up my own stories. In my fantasy world, magic filled the air like a gas, like a force of nature, elemental. Only a few select wizards could harness it, charged as they were with protecting and policing its use. I dreamt up scenarios of how one such wizardess would visit me in the middle of the night, touch me on the forehead and whisper, “You are the Chosen One.” Hearing this would feel in equal parts obvious and impossible — Finally! and Yeah, right! at the same time. But I would just nod obediently and get out of bed. Then she’d whisk me away on a grand adventure filled with peril and purpose.
I drew pictures of these sorcerers. I designed robes and capes and utility belts. I crafted weapons and jewelry. I gave them pets. My wizards must be fully accessorized! I listed the chronologies of power in my world, the battles that led from one monarchy to the next. And I thought about a boy thrust into all of this at a time of chaos, whose quest was to bring peace and order to the land once again.
I still find myself daydreaming all the time. That never went away (great for writing, terrible for weekly staff meetings). And even if I’m not yet a writer, I still write and I still love it. Even the parts where I mutter to myself and my husband asks me if I’m talking to him (I’m not). Even the parts where I stare at the blank white screen of my laptop so long that my burned-out retinas see ghost colors.
The other day I reread Harold and the Purple Crayon. That book broke my heart again and again as child, even though I loved it dearly. Harold was so powerful he could conjure dragons, towering cities, the moon. But despite his ability to give life to a starving moose or unhelpful policeman, he remained so utterly alone. At the end, after an exhausting trek through the night, he finds he’s most at home inside an empty room, on a deserted planet, hiding under the covers of his bed. Granted, I may have been projecting a little; that story is a bit like a Rorschach test. But the themes I saw in there, or maybe just thought I saw, continue to shape my creative instincts to this day.
I am attracted to the idea of imagination as power, and power as an expression of loneliness. Many young people find themselves torn between the immense freedom and the terrible claustrophobia that come hand in hand when you are forced to live inside your own damn head all the time. I want to continue exploring this paradox in my own writing. It’s a notion already brilliantly illustrated by a newer favorite of mine, The Riverman by Aaron Starmer. In Starmer’s universe, children can escape to another dimension where absolutely anything they imagine instantly becomes real. It’s a land of incredible joy and unspeakable horror, as if Harold has gone from sweet toddler to troubled adolescent. What seemed like an innocent power back when his unassuming purple crayon sketched only delicious pies and apple trees turns out not to be so innocent after all.
I want to write about magic. As a kid I wished so hard for magic to be real, to discover it hiding somewhere or, better yet, to have it discover me. I collected all sorts of objects: little boxes, polished stones, antique pendants, figurines, metal bits of junk I found on the street. After dusting each one off, I’d align them all in rows along my desk and then rearrange them from time to time like an obsessive little curator. Any one of these items could reveal hidden powers, I thought, just by uttering the right word or pressing my fingers against it in the proper way. Those objects have followed me everywhere (though sadly, none have started glowing, floating, or talking to me — yet). My desire for magic to exist in the world — my belief that it needs to — hasn’t diminished much with age. I’m just starting to look for it in other places.
I’m becoming more interested in science and technology. I’ve always appreciated science fiction’s distinct ability to breathe life into the nonhuman characters (whether alien or artificial) as a way to illustrate and expand upon what being human really means. I’m also coming to understand how our imagining of future science, however preposterous, directly shapes the present world. We invent crazy things in our minds and then set out to make them real. And what is magic, if not the ability to take what’s inside our lonely heads and give it life on the outside? That’s what I want to do now: shape the world with my daydreams. Just like Harold with his purple crayon.
A great writer told me recently that what I’m looking for is permission. Whether or not I eventually earn that merit badge or turn writing into that elusive Career with a capital C, all I need right now is for the world to temporarily say “okay” to my crazy idea (or at least not object too loudly). And what that really means is that I need to say “okay” — and actually be okay with whatever comes of it. Whether or not I’m a Chosen One, I still want to go on that grand adventure filled with peril and purpose.