… the woman in line behind me at Subway said today.
I turned and looked at her, wondering what had marked me. I didn’t know her; we had not spoken. I did not sport ink-stained fingers (I love that Ralph Fiennes does in the lead role in “Shakespeare in Love”). I was not wearing my sweatshirt that says, “English Major—You Do the Math.” (Really.) I was not near the car with its “GUD WRTR” license plate.
Then I realized that under my arm I had tucked a notebook and a pen clinging to the spiral binding. Why I brought it into Subway, I don’t know. I was heading out again as soon as they finished making my foot-long tuna. (And by the way, if you’re in the vicinity of 37th and J streets in Sacramento, stop in. This is my favorite Subway—lovely people, super efficient and fast!) But I didn’t have the notebook open. I wasn’t writing.
The woman, 50-something with dark hair, was gazing longingly at my green notebook. I smiled at her and actually, for once, thought about my response. My usual one is something like, “You are a writer…” and then I go into my song and dance about how everyone can write, is born with creative genius, how the term “writer” is not reserved for the privileged or the published, that writers are not just dead white guys with Big Names and Major Novels, blah, blah (thank you, Pat Schneider, not only for the Amherst Writers and Artists method, but that philosophy and those words, too!).
Today I said, “What makes you think you’re not a writer?”
She blinked and said, “Because I’m not writing.”
Ah, Pat has an answer for that, too. “You’re always writing,” I said. “Every time you speak, you’re writing on the air. Every time you tell someone a story about your day, you’re writing that story aloud. You write all the time.”
The woman looked down at her shoes, shook her head. “But I’m not writing any of that DOWN,” she said, hitting the last word with a verbal hammer.
Now I really had to make a decision—go into full-bore, writing counselor mode, which I can do in an instant, or offer some impolite comeback like, “So write it DOWN!” But I had to tell one of the young women at Subway what veggies I wanted on my tuna (lots of green peppers, a few onions, olives, pepperoncinis, salt and pepper, spinach), and I had to go to Trader Joe’s and buy food for my Saturday writing group, and….
What I was really thinking was: How do these people find me? and There are no accidents.
So I said, “Are you serious? You really want to write?”
And the woman looked me in the eye and said, “Yes.”
“What’s stopping you from grabbing a pen and a notebook,” I waved my green one in my right hand, “and starting?”
She shook her head and said what I’ve heard a thousand times: “I’m afraid it won’t be very good.”
And I said, “If you don’t get it out of your head and on paper, how will you know?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Are you a writer?”
“Yes,” I said. “I am.”
“What have you published?” she asked.
I sighed. I hate this question. Not that I haven’t published, but I am not Big Time Published in most people’s eyes. Still, yes, I have lots of articles and history as a journalist and a small book of poetry and a novel-in-progress, and yes, I’m a writing teacher. But you tell that to someone who wants to be a writer, and they’re either intimidated as all get-out or they think you’re bragging. Some want to take a class with you.
“That’s not important,” I said, channeling Pat a bit. “What’s important is that I’m a writer because I write. That’s all. Not because I’m published or not published. Not because I know how to spell or use commas correctly. I write shitty first drafts so I can clean them up and write better second ones. Most of what I write stays in here”—I waved the notebook—”and never sees the light of day unless I share it with other people, usually other writers.”
I looked at her quite seriously. “And that’s all it takes to be a writer,” I said.
Then I turned to the young woman behind the counter who was already putting exactly the right veggies on my sandwich. (They know me well.) She looked up at the woman who was asking me questions and said, “She’s a very good writer,” which was a nice thing to say because, as far as I know, she hasn’t read me. Still, I’ll take it. I smiled at her.
The woman behind me said, “So all you have to do to be a writer is write?”
“Yep,” I said.
“I just have to start?”
“Yep,” I said. And then I did what I often do. I gave her my card and invited her to email me if she wanted to talk more or find a writing group or a class. She left the store smiling, thanking me, waving.
I think this is one of my reasons for being on the planet. Not to work toward world peace or fix the broken political system or feed the hungry even. Though, now that I think of it, encouraging people to write their art out, one word at a time, could help with all three of those things. I’m here to remind people that they are writers, to put notebooks and pens in their hands, or urge them to pick up laptops, give them a prompt and go. Read aloud if they like in safe environments with supportive listeners.
And I’m also here to, as Anne Lamott says so brilliantly in her terrific book on writing, Bird by Bird, get my own work done. (She’s the one who has a great chapter in that book on “shitty first drafts” that I mentioned earlier. She’s funny and right on about all things having to do with writing. I highly recommend it.)
Because if I’m a writer, I have to write. So do you. It’s just a matter of sitting down with notebook and pen or laptop and fingers and putting the words down, one at a time, bird by bird. We chase the words down the page, whether they’re prose or poem, and see what they have to tell us. We’re often surprised by what appears. We didn’t know we knew that. We didn’t know we were that smart or funny or clever or—oh, yes—dumb.
But we write stuff down to find out what we’re thinking. And that, for me, is the biggest surprise and joy of all.