I don’t remember learning to read and write. The way my mother tells it, she discovered me at age three reading an ancient copy of Fun with Dick and Jane I’d unearthed somewhere, and I’ve been writing almost as long. Reading and writing were a continuum, not separate from one another. I loved the shape of letters – the teepee of A, the crawling snake of S. I loved stringing them into words and sentences. I loved the escape of books. They were magical objects, portals into other worlds. I didn’t think about how they came into being, the mechanics of someone sitting down to think about character and setting, cross things out, scrawl notes in the margins of typewritten pages. I didn’t dream of writing. I just wrote.
Tom Sawyer said, “You there” and Dorothy sounded plaintive; Peter Pan was cocky and Hook flamboyant. I wrote poems, too, about zebras and the ocean and pollution.
I liked meter and rhyme. I liked typing and illustrating. Writing poems was play.
As a teenager, my poems moved from paeans to bubblegum and spring toward more personal subjects. I was polite, though, correct. I wrote for the A even when I was writing for myself. My journals were wilder. Sometimes I swore like a truck driver. I detailed dreams; I wrote blush-worthy, cringe-worthy things. In these pages, a different, darker, truer kind of writing began to take shape. I took just one writing class in college – poetry. I wrote pretty terrible stuff. But I was practicing. And I continued to read voraciously. I started to think I’d like to write and teach. For a long time, when people asked what I did, I put it that way, as verbs. I write versus I’m a writer. I wasn’t ready to identify as a noun.
I graduated, moved to Chicago and discovered performance art and poetry slams. The former seemed to rely heavily on thrift store prom dresses, things you buy at the grocery or hardware store (dead fish, duct tape), nudity and anger while the latter was rife with wannabe rock stars who swaggered on stage and growled poems about the city like she was a girl they wanted to fuck. I wrote about puberty and Catholic school, light and family and drowning. As time progressed, my poems evolved into monologues. I developed some pieces with a choreographer who liked to work with text. I did a brief stint with a theater company that commissioned my first full-length play and led to meeting an author I pretty much idolize, Tom Spanbauer, from whom I took a brilliant workshop called “Dangerous Writing.” I began performing some of my monologues and had some critical success. I wrote a screenplay called Sidework about working in restaurants where so many of us seemed to occupy a kind of limbo – waiting on customers, on dreams, on the future. I wrote a play called Chivalry based on the true story of some remarkable anti-lynching activists in the 1930s. I sent those scripts out. I kept writing.
Three years ago I stumbled upon an ad for Glamour magazine’s real-life essay contest. I was teaching a workshop at Lake County Jail in Waukegan with my friend Lindsay, and I read drafts to her on our weekly drive up from Chicago. Then I submitted the essay and waited. I wrote and performed a monologue, worked on a new screenplay. A year later, I got a phone call from an editor at Glamour. I’d won the contest. Not only that, but the judges were writers I’d heard of, read and respected, and the essay was scheduled to be published in the April issue. Then there was a whirlwind of activity: I got a check and a meeting with an agent in New York. Another agent found me through my website, and the magazine connected me with a third via email. Everyone asked me what I was doing. I told them I was working on a book, a collection of essays called The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. I was going to use the autobiographical monologues I’d been writing as fodder for a collection of non-fiction essays about what it was like growing up in my family and what life’s been like since then. It would be about the way we create our identities through narrative and the way we mythologize our lives. They liked it. They said go work on it, keep in touch. Get yourself published some more in the meantime. Oh yeah, and maybe start a blog.
At some point I switched from the verb to the noun. I write. And I am a writer. Moreover, despite the fact that I’ve still only earned about enough to buy a (very) used car as a direct result of my writing, being a writer has paid the bills: For almost twenty years I’ve taught workshops in poetry and performance in schools, jails and healthcare centers. I wrote a post last fall called, “Everything is medicine,” a phrase I heard for the first time at a gong bath, a kind of sonic group therapy using gongs, Himalayan singing bowls and, in this case, a didgeridoo. Writing, for me, is definitely medicine. “Writing saved my life” yields almost twenty-eight million Google hits, so I know I’m not the only one. As a kid, I saw books as magical objects. I still see writing as a little bit magic. In my hall closet is a cardboard box of journals that I’ve carried through four states, two houses, three dorm rooms and thirteen apartments. They contain endless litanies of to-dos, ideas, self-doubt, pep talks and rants, rapture and despair. I haven’t read any cover to cover since I set the words down on their pages, but it seems callous to my younger selves to toss them out. Sometimes, working on a monologue or essay, I’ve looked something up, but mostly I just carry them with me. They were necessary. It was necessary to fill those pages with words. Those pages led to this page, these words. I think best with a pen in my hand. It is my medicine. It keeps on saving me.
How about you? Why do you write, or paint or play music or cook beautiful things? What’s your medicine? What saves you?