Writing class tonight and the writing prompt was to write a list of instructions—a how to list. Everyone did well. One woman wrote a list of what you need to teach in an Inner City Public School (money to decorate and to buy plastic cups, the ability to deal with a broken car window, an extraordinarily good immune system to fight off colds). Another woman wrote a list that I would call How to Live Your Life. It included picking up pennies off the sidewalk, watering your plants, writing until you get a blister on your finger, inching toward who you want to be. Another person wrote something like What You Need to Have a Nervous Breakdown and then described what it’s like to have a dad dying of cancer. Someone else wrote “How to Be Silly” and included a description of what you would need to do in order to duplicate the Charlie Chaplin shuffle. All good; all interesting. These women are awesome and you know I must be telling the truth because I am normally a total cynic. But how can you be cynical when you are surrounded by very centered and positive women in good clothes who feed you homemade brownies? Also, my teacher gave me four pages of single-spaced notes on my story last week. When I thanked her today, she said, Well, it’s an award winner.
I came up with How to Plant a Garden, but quickly realized that I don’t know anything about gardening. How to Create a Sim Family. Interesting, but only to me. Here’s what I wrote instead:
How to Become a Writer
First, you must experience an early trauma. It can be as dramatic as a kidnapping, a house fire, or abuse from a trusted adult or something as simple as being an only child to any absent-minded mother. The degree of trauma doesn’t matter; it just helps that you experience it and tuck it away in the sleeve of your heart to unpack later. This trauma must happen before the age of four, so that it can imprint on your still forming self.
Next, you must feel a sense of loneliness and isolation from others. This sensibility can be manufacture if necessary. You can force yourself to hide in the closet under your mother’s winter coats for hours on end. You can give away all of your toys to the rowdy neighbor boys and then stare out the living room window, feeling sorry for yourself.
The critical thing is to somehow disconnect from others, but also from yourself, so that you can start thinking about your life in third person as in:
The girl played alone in the den while her mother baked a cake and didn’t offer her any of the batter.
Now you must start reading books that are too old for you, preferably books about misunderstood, sensitive girls. Not Nancy Drew, in other words. Nancy Drew could set any potential writer toward the exact opposite direction away from dreaminess and into practicality and sensible, rubber soled shoes.
Daydream in school. Make up entire conversations between you and people you’ve never met—movie stars or jockeys. Invent a plausible situation or an implausible situation, but be sure that you come out on top in the end.
In junior high, stumble upon the poetry of Sylvia Plath and believe for a time that you are the only person your age to discover this dark, tortured genius. Do not think of yourself as a cliché (that will come later in writing classes where the word “cliché” is spit out with great venom during workshops). No, you are thirteen and the world is horrible and you will never fall in love or kiss a boy and no one understands you and for God’s sake, all you asked your mother was for one pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, is that too much?
Write about it all in your brand new Hello Kitty diary, a gift from your grandmother. Make sure to lock it tight and slip it between the box spring and mattress like a little secret all your own.
Then our teacher rang the bell, ding! And we had to stop. I suppose I could’ve gone on, but it was sort of cheating, because Lorrie Moore has already written a similar story, possibly even with the same title.
I am lucky to have found this class, these women. At the very least, it makes me write for twenty minutes once a week.