Writer’s note: Throughout this article, any mention of writing refers to my individual pursuits and excludes any and all involvement with the Urchin Movement, which I consider more than writing but, rather, a long-term creative collaboration with fellow artists I admire and respect.
The past three weeks have led me to believe that I may be a writer. I’ve called myself that for a time now. I’ve identified with the term and thus used it as a signifier, and because I’m not the only one guilty of that, I’ve even shied away from the term. There’s a well-understood joke here in New York—when someone asks you if you’re a writer, you respond, ‘Isn’t everyone?’
In New York City there are writers and there are people who fancy themselves writers. Everyone dreams, sometimes delusively. Oftentimes I’ve questioned whether I actually belong to the latter and not to the former, especially during those long stretches of time when I’m not writing. Here’s another joke: A writer’s least favourite activity is writing. (Funny that there are so many jokes about whether or not one is actually a writer, and funnier that I’ve heard a lot of these jokes before.)
I’ve been guilty of hating to write. I’ve used the writer label to excuse many eccentricities that may otherwise be socially unacceptable in a left-brained individual, like being a control freak or having an obsessive personality or seizing up when presented with a maths problem. I’ve also used the label to project things about myself, like being able to hold a conversation with someone about nearly anything (when, as it turns out, I know a lot less than I thought I did or even pretended to). Yes, I’ve enjoyed the intellectual benefits of the title, all while cursing and developing intricate headaches whenever I’m actually writing something. Because of that, my discipline has gone down considerably since my university days, when I averaged a two-hour writing session everyday. For the past two years, I’ve recently realised, my personal writing sessions usually last between 20 to 45 minutes, and then I very achingly want to be doing something easier.
But these past three weeks have been different, the catalyst being that I submitted a short story to a publication for the first time in four years. The only other time I did that was around the time I first started calling myself a writer. It was my final year at university, and I had been getting a lot of praise and ego-boosting from professors and peers alike. One professor, who went through the trouble of creating an independent study course just so I could sit and discuss my work with him once a week, encouraged me to submit a story to a journal. It was rejected and I was disappointed, and from that point decided that I would not submit anything anywhere until I put in the years to become a better writer.
Fast-forward four years: Margaret encouraged me to submit a story to a small publication in need of more submissions. The deadline was in two weeks, and the issue I’d be submitting to had a theme that fit none of my previously written material. So, after four years of nebulously writing for the equally nebulous goal of ‘writing better,’ hammering out a prompted story from scratch in two weeks was a challenge I gleefully accepted.
For two weeks, following those first four years of highs and lows and the illusions and disillusions of it all, I lived the life I’ve always wondered about. I wrote my story vigourously in coffeeshops before work, after work and during my off-days. When I wasn’t writing I was thinking about it at work, during meals, in the shower. When I finished a draft, I enlisted the help of my co-Urchins, talented readers, writers, and editors themselves, to point out things I’d otherwise never see. I kept my composure and c’est-la-vie’d when my computer died. I finished the final draft and submitted it a day early from the computer in the backroom of the bookstore. It was exhilarating, and even if a published story doesn’t come out of all this, I have never felt more like a writer before in my life.
I realise now that my old professor encouraged me to submit a story not because he thought I had enough talent but because I thought I did. He knew how to boost my ego and keep me humble, and he managed to do it in one fell swoop. I knew he was a good mentor, but I didn’t know he was that good.