(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
Talking about what inspires me to write is really talking about what makes me a person. It goes back to the beginning, to who I used to be.
I’m often asked when I decided I wanted to become a writer. That’s a funny question to me, because there was no conscious decision. I didn’t actively choose to be a writer, or come to it after trying other things. There was never a time when I didn’t want to write. Sure, maybe what I wanted to write evolved from one thing to another: poems, short stories, novels for adults, novels for young adults… but the writing itself, the desire—no, the need—to express myself in words was always with me.
Just because you want to write and always have doesn’t mean publication comes easily. So maybe that’s why I’m asked the question so often. I published my first book beyond the arbitrary line I’d drawn for myself: I was older than thirty. So maybe it seems like this is something I came to later in life.
It wasn’t. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write, even in my journals, only for myself, but always, always, I was writing. I’m a writer first, and then a person, even though this can be—is—a very dangerous thing.
I wrote before I thought of publishing. I wrote because reading stories was my escape, and so writing my own stories became the next step toward that escape. I wrote to make sense of things. To reimagine. To re-remember. To hold close. To push away. To live again. To invent. To fight and to win.
At some point I became aware that writers wrote to publish and have people read them. So I tried that. And sometimes I succeeded, but mostly I failed. I wrote when I thought it would be easy, and I wrote when all I heard was: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. Still, I kept being inspired to write.
But what inspired me? What pushed me to keep telling stories? When I think of all my years of writing—the good, and the bad—I feel that fire of inspiration that consumed me and made me want to keep making art from the absolute scratch of a blank page.
I think of what got me up at five o’clock in the morning so I could take the subway to my writing space before my full-time day job, even if I only had an hour or two before I had to get back on the subway and go to work. I remember those half-asleep mornings, the sky dark as I made my way to the train, only the people begging for change and the people waiting for the nearby methadone clinic to open were awake with me at that hour. I remember falling asleep on the train and then jolting awake when my stop came. I remember sitting at that writing desk with the morning hours ahead of me and feeling so perfectly, wonderfully alive, the inspiration to write worth everything.
It’s important that I remember this.
To remember being at work. At the artist’s studio. At the educational publisher. At the comic-book company. At the children’s publisher, the first one and then the second one. At all of these places over the years, being in the midst of doing my job—checking the mailroom, marking up the proofs, lugging the heavy piles of pages up the stairways—and having to stop in the hallways, in dark stairwells, in corners, or hide myself in bathroom stalls, in elevators, scribbling a few fevered words down. The inspiration to write followed me everywhere.
I think of what kept me at the writing when I had a box of rejections, stuffed full. When staring at a five a.m. dark city morning when all you hear is No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No still seems worth it somehow. Still seems necessary.
I think of what keeps me writing now. Now, when I’m trying to make writing a career. With deadlines. And reviews. And paychecks depending on what I can produce. With all the doubt that threatens to ruin me.
Because the truth is, I don’t write for you. Or you. Or you. Or you.
I write for myself and always have.
What originally inspired me to write was the simple fact that writing was a way for me to speak when I didn’t know how.
Writing gave me the voice I couldn’t find any other way—and this is where I find my inspiration.
* * *
We’re going back in time. There I am in the nondescript middle of a classroom. I am holding myself very still while the teacher scans the room for someone to call on to give the answer. It is math class. It is social studies class. It is science. It is even English, my favorite subject. I am eight. I am eleven. I am thirteen and fifteen and seventeen and eighteen. I may know the answers. I may have opinions or things to say. But I can’t utter them, not in front of all these people.
I can’t lift my hand or open my mouth to speak. I can’t even look up. I hope against hope that I won’t be called on. I keep my eyes from meeting the teacher’s. I hold my breath. I shrink.
What am I afraid of? Being embarrassed. Being thought of as stupid. Being uncool to the kids I want to be friends with in class. Being someone no one ever wants to hear speak again. Being me. Having people know who that is.
The teacher’s eyes fall on me. My stillness hasn’t kept me from being seen. “Participating in class” is part of my grade—sometimes it’s what brings my grades down. But there comes a time in every classroom, maybe once a month, once a quarter, when my name is called and I am forced to talk without prior warning in front of everyone.
The pain of this can be excruciating. Heat fills my body, bubbling and fizzing and clenching around my heart. It rises to my face and then the color blooms. Kids in class point out, “Look how red she is!” I open my mouth to talk and the teacher often asks me to speak up. I try to be loud, but I can’t. Still, I give the answer. Sometimes it’s the right answer. I can’t hear it, though, because my ears thrum with blood. My eyes tear from the heat. I want to never have to see any of these people ever again.
This doesn’t get too much easier over the years, because we keep moving. We move in time for first grade. Again in time for seventh grade. We move just before ninth grade, the first year of high school. We move one last time before tenth grade.
So how do you rise out of debilitating shyness to show that you are a person worthy of opinions, a person with a voice who has things to say? To show you are worth something. You are someone.
In my case, you write.
There was a short story unit in elementary school. There were papers in English. There were my journals, my pages of poems. There were my short stories about disappearing girls—I still write these stories; now I can even publish them as novels. I once wrote a paper on female mathematicians for math class—my former math teacher came to one of my readings because she remembered me and this paper. I wrote at every opportunity, happily, on anything. It was the one thing I did that made me feel like myself.
The writing was personal, too. I wrote everything and everyone around me. I wrote the things I couldn’t say out loud. When painful things happened to me (family that hurt me, boys who hurt me) I wrote them down and wrote them away. I wrote what I couldn’t say.
My mom—a voracious reader—saw this and encouraged me at every turn. Eventually, it was my writing that gave me the inspiration and the courage to speak. To even be loud.
Now that I can talk in front of people, now that I have, on uncountable occasions, stood before of a room of people and talked about myself, my books, revealing who I am to strangers, you may think I’m a different person. It’s miraculous to me, how much I’ve changed.
But it all goes back to that girl sitting very, very still in the nondescript center of the classroom. Hoping no one will notice her while she burns up with all the things she’s noticing inside.
It is the act of writing that inspires me. The idea that I didn’t feel like I had a voice, and I did.
I write for that strange, uncomfortable girl I was, the beet-red face in the classroom, filling up with the shame and fire of wanting to disappear. I’m inspired by the girl I was who thought she had nothing worthy to say.
She did. She does. We all do.
Thank you for reading November’s “What Inspires You?” blog series! And thank you to all the writers who wrote guest blogs for me. I’m honored to have been able to post them.
Here, you can read the entire blog series:
- Inspiring Novel Openings
- What Inspires Lisa Schroeder
- What Inspires Tara Altebrando
- What Inspires Bryan Bliss
- What Inspires Sara Zarr
- What Inspires Anna M. Evans
- What Inspires Christine Lee Zilka
- What Inspires Sophie Rosenblum
- What Inspires Mike Jung
- What Inspires Mike Martin
- What Inspires Veronica Roth
- What Inspires Laurel Snyder
- What Inspires Bennett Madison
- What Inspires Alexander Chee
- What Inspires Kathleen Duey
- What Inspires THE INTERN
- What Inspires Stephanie Kuehnert
- What Inspires Timothy Braun
- What Inspires Julia Karr
- What Inspires Jamey Hatley
- What Inspires Sabina Murray
- What Inspires Michelle Aldredge