Honestly, because I can’t do math.
I tried. I really did. Mr. Allison, my freshman math teacher, and his dedicated student assistant, Terry Stone, worked with me after school to cram the concepts of basic algebra into my fuzzy writer’s brain. It didn’t take. I barely passed algebra that year and geometry the next (I still can’t fathom how those angled lines on paper are supposed to look three-dimensional), but I sailed through English and any high school class that required writing. I wrote for and edited the school paper. I had my own column in the local paper detailing high school events. I was also the only girl drummer in the marching band, which gave me great material for stories.
I wanted to be a writer by the time I was eleven, and I told my mother that. “Well,” she said, neatly outlining my future, “maybe you can work for a newspaper and write your stories and poems after work.” Not long after that, my father brought home a hand-cranked mimeograph machine, plunked it on his workbench in the garage and said, “I bet you can do something with this.” I raced around the neighborhood interviewing anyone who would talk to me and writing stories as fast as my pencil could move. My mother typed the stencil on her manual Smith-Corona, and my father fired up the stinky machine, cranking out rotten egg-smelling sheet after sheet. The Granite Bay Gazette was born, and so was my journalism career.
All I knew about journalism was that stories were supposed to be true and short. The first story in the first issue (under my hand-drawn byline, Jan Haag, reporter and chief editor) was this (complete with a run-on sentence):
Local Person Shoots Bat
Mr. R. Haag of Granite Oaks Drive spotted a bat flying around his garage Monday, August 11. He described it as an ordinary brown bat. Mr. Haag shot it with his B.B. gun. He also said it took quite a few shots before he killed the bat as his gun was rather worn out. Be on the lookout for bats, they may be rabid.
The second story was this:
The Local Policeman Answers
I am interested in determining if Mr. R. Haag has a license for hunting bats. Furthermore, is his firearm duly registered with the proper authorities?
And so I had my first experience of writing and publishing a story that could get someone in trouble—in this case, my father. Fortunately, the “local policeman” was my father’s good friend in the neighborhood who worked for the FBI. And my parents had to explain that he was teasing me because B.B. guns didn’t require a license. That was news to me. Real news. I was hooked.
So what it comes to is this (one of my favorite writing prompts): I write because I can’t not write. It’s how I think, how I figure things out, how I amuse myself, how I keep from going bonkers, how I express every human emotion that bubbles up and threatens to boil over on me. With years of practice I’ve gotten better at it—not only journalism but also novels and poems and essays and bits of memoir. And that’s good because I have no other marketable skills.
What I’m really good at is encouraging others to put their voices on paper. So while I teach college journalism and composition and creative writing, I also run private writing groups using a gentle, supportive practice called the Amherst Writers & Artists method (created by the wise and wonderful Pat Schneider of Amherst, Massachusetts, and outlined in her remarkable book, Writing Alone and With Others). I believe that we are all writers, that “we’ve all been writing on the air for years,” as Pat says. We just need to put our words onto paper (or screen) in a safe, encouraging environment. People show up in my groups to write to prompts and see what shows up. Once a year we produce a small chapbook of our mostly first-draft writing and hold a reading in Sacramento, a city full of good writers who cheer each other on. I am fortunate to be a part of such a supportive writing community.
Here’s the thing (another good prompt): I still can’t do math. I proudly own and wear a sweatshirt that my mother bought me that proclaims:
English major. You do the math.
But man, can I poet. How I novel. Or profile for a magazine story. I am grateful to have been able to make my living as a writer/editor/teacher of writing for more than 25 years. I really am. Because if I had to go out into the world and find a real job—one that involved sitting in an office for eight hours a day or, heaven forbid, math—well, it wouldn’t be pretty.
I remind myself of this on long days of paper grading or when I’m on deadline for a writing or editing assignment, that I wouldn’t be anywhere else, my fingers on a keyboard, old typewriters and pens and notebooks and far too many books strewn all over my house—the tools of my trade, of this privileged life I lead as a writer.