There are so many explanations for why people write. The most common one is I write because I have to. For some people it’s a compulsion, a point of pride, a craving, a habit. I take no issue with that, or with my usual answer: I write because I have stories to tell.
That’s only part of the reason. If we didn’t have stories to tell, we wouldn’t be writing. As so often happens, though, we only see the outside of the shell, not the meaty inside portion. Here’s my story.
My sister is an author. We’re great friends; she’s two years older than I am. We went to the same high school and because we were both pretty darn good in English, had a lot of the same teachers. Our AP English teacher was one of those guys who you really wanted to study with. His reputation was excellent. He was warm and personable, supportive and more nontraditional than many of the other members of the department. He let us choose some of our own curriculum, always smiled, cracked a few jokes. He was the kind of teacher most students just loved.
I was one of his fans…until he pulled me aside one day, a creative writing assignment I’d turned in covered with red ink, and asked me the most painful question ever: “Why can’t you write like your sister?”
That’s not a question anyone should have to hear. I don’t care if my sister was the best writer the school had ever seen (she probably was, she’s wonderful): you never compare family members like that. He went on and on about how great she was with a turn of phrase, how lyrical her writing was, and so on. The upshot of it was that I would never be half the writer she was: just look at the mess I’d made of things. I don’t remember what I wrote or what it was about. What I do remember is that his comments made me feel about an inch tall. I don’t think I opened my mouth to answer a question or make a comment in his class the rest of the school year. I read my books, wrote my papers, finished the school year… and vowed never to try my hand at creative writing again.
My teacher’s one comment went a long way toward cementing my decision to major in elementary education at a college far from home. I wanted nothing to do with him or with anyone else from my high school. I wanted nothing to do with studying English or with writing. His comment was so devastating that it took me until halfway through my junior year at college to switch majors to English Lit (not writing! never writing) and it took me about three years after graduation before I dared to write stories again.
As a child, I escaped into stories. I wrote them all the time. I wrote with my sisters; I wrote alone. I wrote with friends. I wrote plays and poems and novels and short stories. With one disgusted sigh, my AP English teacher invalidated the one thing I’d loved best.
These days, I write because I want to. I write because all the stories that were erased that one day have crowded back in with a vengeance. I write because I see the world in stories and in opportunities for stories. I write because I’m still furious at the person who squashed my creativity. While it’s true that I can’t write like my sister and never wanted to write like my sister, I can sure as hell write like myself. That may be different, but it’s every bit as good.