At the beginning of each semester of freshman composition, I give the students a pep talk. Probably only one in any group is truly confident about his or her writing ability. Many of them already have decided they just can’t or won’t, and they don’t have any aims at trying any more than necessary to pass the class and get on with nursing or engineering or public safety or whatever else they think they won’t need English for. That feels like the majority, though I couldn’t say for certain. The rest are a mix: writing pragmatists who have little interest in theory or artistry; the good-but-don’t-know-it-yet; the terrified; and the couldn’t-tell-a-comma-splice-from-conjunctivitis.
Part of the pep talk lecture centers on Stephen King’s assertion that at the heart of bad writing is fear. Writing and fear are perfect topics for King, and I believe he’s right. One way he illustrates the point is by exploring passive voice; a writer hides behind it, afraid of his or her own soul’s shadow. Active voice is bold and direct. It forces the writer to own what he or she wants to say. That’s good especially for southerners to hear, considering the polite hedges we use to protect ourselves and others from unpleasant thoughts, i.e.: Bless his heart, he’s just so stupid.
Writing is vulnerability. My brief stint as a journalist taught me that. The audience is all too eager to find the chinks in your armor, be it an incorrect rendering of an idiom you thought you knew – long road to hoe, for example – or any sliver of inaccuracy. Likely this is what makes writing such a romantic profession: the same wounded heart driving the craft is the one tested in the fires of battle, the one willing to be wounded more. It’s a sweet sort of bravery that shouldn’t be ruined with passivity. In one way or another all writers become the Man of La Mancha. You have to at least pretend not to be afraid. You have to commit to impossible dreams. A touch of madness helps, too. That’s bravery through vulnerability, and that’s beautiful.
In a way, the pep talk I give my students is as much for myself as it is for them. For most of them, the pragmatists, it’s a simple matter of ownership and active voice. For a select few others, it’s a matter of soul, those few who are like I was once, compelled yet terrified. In Kentucky yet there are mothers and fathers still unimpressed with the need for education in general, and so many of these students were brave just to fill out a college application to begin with. The culture, especially in the rural areas, still values extreme pragmatism and family devotion. Going to college means you’re leaving. It means you’re likely not to come back and fulfill your familial obligations. It means somehow the seemingly innate ingenuity and practical intelligence that ensured hillside survival in isolation for centuries has a role in other things. With this bravery very often comes a pure and tragic voice, not from all of them, but from enough of them to make me think it’s true.
I didn’t grow up on a farm. I was a generation removed from that. My parents were teachers, pioneering college degrees ahead of me and my sister. Their parents were not educated formally, and were, aside from unfair ideas of unintelligence, fairly stereotypical eastern Kentuckians with Appalachian foothill stories. My grandfather once told me that as a boy he wouldn’t have shoes until after the first autumn frost, and that first frost morning he’d go to the barn, wake up a cow and make it move so he could drop his bare feet into the warm straw where the cow had been sleeping. For me there were Nikes, very specific and expensive ones. Don’t get me wrong. I had to chase a cow or two, toss more than a few bales of hay, but mainly I had the freedom of imagination in a little house by the sidewalk near downtown. I had a mother who wouldn’t rest until I understood the difference between direct and indirect objects. I had a father who loved stories.
For my family, the reintroduction to education and the slight class upgrade was perhaps long overdue. All sides go back two or three centuries in the same general area. Trace them back to Europe and you start to discover titles of nobility, primarily Scottish and Irish titles. They were knights and kings. It doesn’t take much historical exploration to understand how nobility end up Kentucky farmers: your kin sell you out to the British or you find yourself a Protestant among Catholics, and the draw of the wilds of Virginia – now Kentucky – become very attractive, and since your title means nothing now anyway, you might as well leave it across the Pond.
I bring that up only because heredity and environment play into this concept of the born writer, toward which I’ve been meandering now for about 850 words. In my pep talk, after we address fear, I launch into a rebuttal of King’s assertion that great writers are born. Nature versus nurture is an old debate, and one that incorrectly pits the two against one another as though our abilities and proclivities and personalities aren’t the result of beautifully complex combination of the two. Still, I tend to side with nurture – not so much for any objective reason, but because, very selfishly, I must for my own sake. That great writers are born is a concept I must reject. It must be rejected precisely because of the fear the idea creates, the fear that prevents writers from becoming in the first place, like the fear that prevents great, would-be Kentucky writers from breaking or challenging tradition in a place so wedded to tradition that change sometimes seems impossible. The idea embraced within and without that we, Kentuckians, are born a certain way is defeatist and belies the Kentucky spirit. The same goes for writers.
Like others, I am wowed by the savants, those with extraordinary natural abilities from a young age. Mozart, for example. Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein at 17 or some ridiculous age. Akiane Kramarik. Or my childhood classmate, Shane Stanley, who in the first grade could create intricate houses and cars with an Etch-a-Sketch. Bushes and everything. Wheels that were actually round. A very small subset of people seem to have astonishing natural abilities. But I don’t think we should confuse gift with skill. After all, a lot of people thought young Einstein was retarded.
The brain is an incredibly adaptive organ. One study showed that if a person meditates 30 minutes every day for 30 days, the person actually alters the brain’s neuro-pathways. The brains of blind people reroute the senses in a way that sound, like a bat’s sonar, can substitute for sight. Other research says it takes 10,000 hours to become a master of some skill. That’s 1.15 years if you don’t sleep or do anything else. Likely that is accelerated if one begins early enough, say 3 years old. Brains are born, and then they are trained.
For a long time it was thought that boys and girls were naturally different in their talents and abilities. A recent study shows something else. In it, parents set up an incline for their crawling infants to climb. They could adjust the steepness of it as they saw fit. Across the board, the parents of baby boys set the incline at a steeper angle than the parents of baby girls. Right from the beginning, little girls are being taught they have limits while boys are taught to push themselves and overcome obstacles. Again, the mind is trained, not born.
I have lots of other reasons to think we are, for the most part, products of our environments; I could go on and on. To be fair, I could go on and on about brain chemistry, which can suggest we have absolutely no control over ourselves whatsoever, but in addition to my need to believe in free will, I have a need to believe that we are not “born” to do anything. What we are and what we do are the results of the environments we find ourselves in and the actions we take within those environments. I must believe this or I might as well quit now.
When I was 17 I set a ridiculous and dreamy goal for myself. It was an incredible thing to me that the works of a short list of authors were presented to, I presumed, all American kids. I wanted to be one of them. My dream was that one day I would be required high school reading, placed on a list alongside Harper Lee, Mark Twain, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This was the most satisfying of any of my silly fantasies.
I’ll chalk up the arrogance to think I might actually achieve that to teenage bravado. It wasn’t entirely my fault. My head had been pumped up by a string of literary successes. I had won several essay and poetry contests. I was one of a few who got a “Distinguished” on his writing portfolio. Enough people told me I was gifted that I really bought into it. I bought into it enough that I began to believe I was born to do this. And it was at that moment, I stopped growing as a writer.
College was different. It took a lot more than pizzazz to get an A. College required substance. I stopped winning contests, and others I knew had started winning. But the real challenge wouldn’t come until graduate school.
A friend of mine suggested I apply to Spalding’s MFA in poetry program. He had liked my poetry. The first chapters of my novel? Not so much. I applied to the fiction program anyway, even though I’d barely written any fiction, even though I had no idea what an MFA was or why I should have one. To my surprise, I got in, and then I had to ask a bunch of embarrassing questions because I had applied to a program I knew nothing about completely on a whim and, partially, on the advice of another. I chose fiction because I didn’t know how to write it. Poetry for me was a question of the soul, and I wasn’t about to have people try to teach me how to express my soul. If I was going, I was going to explore something I knew nothing about.
Clearly, I was not prepared. At my first residency it didn’t take me long to realize I was suddenly sitting among the literary elite. Many of these people were famous, and all of them, unlike myself, had read Moby Dick, and were constantly telling Moby Dick jokes, which I pretended to understand. They used foreign phrases like “story arc” and “third-person limited point of view.” They informed me there were such things as lyrical essays. They used words like “genre” and “ekphrasis.”
It was terrifying.
When 7 out of 9 workshop members didn’t understand my story, I really began to think I’d made the wrong decision. I’d put everything I had into that story. I went back to my room and mourned. For days. The first half of the first semester didn’t go well, either. I was drowning in my lack of skill. And then fear really took over. I thought of cutting my losses, of going down a different path. I wondered why I had chosen this path to begin with. I had no answer for that. I had to do a serious life review.
Why writing? Well, first of all I couldn’t draw. Or play guitar. Writing was fun, or at least had been until I found myself in over my head. Why not math? I hated and feared math, that’s why. This fear was developed by the torture of timed multiplication tests where I knew the answers but couldn’t write them down fast enough. It was compounded, in a special program I was in, by a too-early introduction to algebra without any explanation whatsoever. I focused on what I was good at, instead, and I quit focusing on math altogether.
I hadn’t quit much else in my life, except one thing: basketball.
I grew faster than most kids. After a fifth-grade growth spurt, I hustled my way to the starting lineup of the Summit Elementary Wildcats basketball team. I was a forward. I had a hot cheerleader girlfriend. I was top ten in the county in scoring and rebounding. In the ninth grade things changed. I stopped growing. The other kids continued growing. I was now a forward in a guard’s body. I tried to adapt. I mastered the fade-away, practiced the Jordan-esque up-and-unders.
Soon, the YMCA said it was time for me to move to the adult court. In my first pickup game, I found myself the only player back to guard the basket against a charging Marty Thomas, a rival school’s star varsity player. I peddled back, ready to defend. It’s unclear if what happened next is only my memory of the event or the actuality of it. I watched the trim of that dude’s shorts fly over my head and heard, not saw, the dunk from behind me. This was the moment I understood my basketball career was over.
But I shouldn’t have understood that. I should have understood that was fear taking me over. I should have understood that if I really wanted to play basketball, I needed to adjust my game and keep at it. Some things come easier for some than others, the Shaqs of the world. But there are some who succeed despite their limitations. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, but he continued after his passion. Not me. I was afraid. I wasn’t cut out for it. I wasn’t born to do it.
Later, in grad school, where it felt like everyone around me was a Marty Thomas, I was faced with the same decision: believe I can do it or believe I wasn’t born to do it and quit. It was good I didn’t quit. I succeeded, and I succeeded well – eventually. I believe these moments pop up again and again in life, and each time we have to believe there’s no such thing as “born to do” something.