"Writer" with a capital "W"

I sit in the red armchair that’s much too large for me, my legs curled under me and my daughter nursing with grunts, squeaks, and slurps. On one arm of the chair I’ve spread a book, and I turn the pages with my free hand.

The book I’m reading is not a novel, but it holds me enthralled. It’s a book of creative non-fiction called Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by one of my favorite fiction authors, Madeleine L’Engle. I picked it up because my creative writing teacher said we need to read more of what we want to write this semester; we can’t work on novels for his class, I haven’t felt inspiration for poetry in over a year, and I’m very bad at short stories, so creative non-fiction it is.

One thing I’m struck by as I read is the way she talks about writing. Of her post-college-pre-marriage years, she says, “I wrote. Got out of bed in the morning and wrote, forgetting breakfast.” In her journal during her married years she recorded, “There is a gap in understanding between me and our friends and acquaintances. I can’t quite understand a life without books and study and music and pictures and a driving passion. And they, on the other hand, can’t understand why I have to write, why I am a writer. When, for instance, I say to someone that I have to get home to work, the assumption is that I mean housecleaning or ironing, not writing a book. I’m very kindly permitted to be a writer but not to take time in pursuing my trade.”

I lift my daughter’s head to my shoulder, rearranging the burp cloth and patting her back distractedly while the book’s pages slowly flip without a hand there to hold my place. I’m currently taking the last two classes of my bachelor’s degree, a degree in English, emphasis in creative writing. But this passage makes me question: am I really a writer?

In the book My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, the main character is an extremely gifted artist. While he is young he has the opportunity to take art lessons from a famous artist, but first the artist tells him that if he can do anything else with his life, anything, he should do it, but if he has to be an artist, then so be it. I’ve heard similar things said about writing, that “real” writers write because they have to, not because they necessarily want to.

I don’t have to. In fact, most of the time I feel very little drive to write. I can go days or weeks without writing more than emails and status updates on facebook. I haven’t kept a consistent journal since high school. I write to fill my school assignments, and every once in awhile I’ll get some inspiration (a.k.a. inner turmoil) and rattle off a blog post.

But then I’ll read something like Two-Part Invention, or the essay “Pearls Before Breakfast” by Gene Weingarten. And then I have to write. Suddenly it is compulsory, poking at a corner of my brain that makes my mouth dry up and my fingers twitch and my mind spin in circles, driving me crazy until I start to let the whirling dervishes out through words—and then it’s over. I get it out and it’s gone. I go back to clicking around on Facebook, or, if I’m feeling really ambitious, I do some dishes.

So I apparently do have some of the drive of a writer, but its infrequency makes me question its validity. Rather, it makes me question whether I can truly be a Writer-with-a-capital-“W,” or if I will finish my degree this semester and then let it sit and rot.

My daughter’s fussing again. I should go get her, but I’m actually writing, and I’m afraid if I stop I won’t start again.


Daniel Sorensen said...


You are definitely a writer. I love your voice in this post, and I think you have a great talent. Keep on writing. You're good at it, and it's nice to be able to do something you're good at.

Shani said...

Thanks Dan. Sometimes I wonder if wanting to be a writer is enough (as opposed to "having" to be), but it is something I love (and hate sometimes, of course), so I'm recommitting myself to making sure I write more often. Good to hear from you, btw.

meghan & jason said...

It's good to hear from you, Shannon. (I do realize it's been a month since you wrote this, but I don't read this blog often enough.) Of course you are a writer. Your essay made me ask the exact same question right before you posed it. Am I a writer? I wonder if you can have that gift but not develop it for so long that you lose it, along with that compulsion to use it. If that's possible, I think I lost it. (Have to fix that someday...) You haven't though. You have a gift for both spoken and written word, so keep using it. There's a time and a season for everything, so if you focus on babies right now, that's okay.

Are you still moving at the end of the semester?

Shani said...

Thanks Meghan. And yeah, we're both graduating, so even though we're not exactly sure what we'll be doing, it doesn't make much sense to stay in an area with expensive housing and no jobs. The plan right now is still to head to my parents' old house on the VA/TN border; who knows how long we'll actually stay there though.