Growing up Writer

My ears rang with the noise of thrumming guitars and pounding drums, and I leaned forward to hear what some guy, wearing a T-shirt with some obscure band name scrawled across it, had asked me. “What do you do?” he said again, and I sat back on my stool.

I was twenty-one, a self-proclaimed punk-alternative-or-something girl, watching some local band play at a dive bar in San Jose for probably the one-hundredth time. The cranberry vodkas I’d sucked down had loosened my tongue, which was normally silent around more than a few people. But now, at this innocent question, from a guy I didn’t know and didn’t really care to know, it seemed frozen in my mouth. Anesthetized like my brain.

What did I do? The walls began to close in on me, like that scene in Star Wars where the walls of the garbage chute close in on the characters. Inside my head, strings of words that were incongruently stuck together bounced around, and I desperately tried to grab hold of something. I’m a waitress. No, I hated that job, and besides, it was only temporary. I’m planning to go to college sometime, somewhere, for something. I’m a party girl? Maybe, but come on.

The guy leaned toward me, spinning a beer bottle around in his hand, waiting for my answer.

So I did what any clueless person who doesn’t want to answer a question does, I dodged it. “Oh, there’s my friend,” I shouted over the music, pretending someone was waiting for me. “See ya.”

What I’d wanted to say were words that seemed like a dream. Like a little girl saying she wants to be a pop star.

I am a writer.

That short sentence hovered in my mind unsaid as I joined my friends, and as the music blared on, I had another drink, letting the alcohol and the noise around me drown it out.

When I was a child, reading was my favorite thing in the entire world. My mom tells a story of how as a baby in my crib, I would sit with a stack of books, “reading” them until I was sleepy. My mom says she always knew I was asleep when she heard the thunk, thunk, thunk of my books falling through the slats in the crib.

When I got to elementary school, I began to write stories. They were fantastical tales, full of animals—especially horses, because, of course—and magic. My teachers wrote lovely comments in cursive red ink in the margins: Great imagination! Terrific story! And when my parents pulled out an old typewriter, I sat in front of it, not knowing how to type one bit but determined to write a story with it just like a real writer. For hours, I punched out words, letter by letter, key by key.

But something happened when I got older—let’s call it high school. Yes, that wonderful time when hormones, rebellion, depression, and popularity contests come together to create a perfect train wreck. For some people anyway. People like me. Doubt, self-consciousness, and teenage angst ate my words before I could get them out. I’m not good enough. I’m dumb. I can’t write. So, I quit putting down the words.

I flopped around after high school, living on my own for the first time. Actually, flopping might be too soft a word. It was probably more like flailing. “What about college?” my parents asked. Whether those words were spoken aloud in exactly that way, I can’t be sure. But it was what I heard in my head, the ceaseless nagging of shoulds and you betters and why aren’t you…? I didn’t know the answer except that not knowing seemed like a reason not to go. For what? What would I do?

In my early twenties, I moved to San Francisco. I bought records in Berkeley; watched bands in the seedy parts of Oakland; joined the hippies on Mt. Tamalpais, who sat in groups to watch the sunset and actually applauded when it did, like it was a performance just for us; visited new age shops in Marin; and took the train to the City Lights Bookstore whenever I could.

But I still felt like an imposter in my own life. A wanna-be writer. Maybe a wanna-be human.

One desperate day, I sat in a coffee shop in San Francisco’s Mission District, my notebook in front of me on the Formica table. Surely this was what writers did, right? Drink coffee in a hip coffee shop? But those outer trappings of a writer couldn’t find a match with the inner me, the one who had no idea how to be the writer I so desperately wanted to be. I filled my journal with anecdotes from the life of a lost young adult, who was afraid she’d never amount to anything, who didn’t know who she was. I looked at my journal and thought, what is this crap? So, I walked back home up the paved hills of the city and sat on the couch.

Some years later, I finally started college after leaving California behind and moved to Austin, Texas. I started college as an English major. That was what a writer would study, I was sure. I lugged giant books into a classroom, giddy, ready to learn, to understand some of the greatest novels ever written. That was what I needed—to study writing.

But I was severely disappointed. My classes were so often about the deconstruction of said novels, and after a semester, my brain felt deconstructed. I’d loved reading. But it had become an assignment, an analysis, a chore. I didn’t know how to be a writer, but for me, one thing had always been whole, cohesive: my love for books. Now, my brain was a cubist Picasso painting of fragmented shapes, strewn about like puzzle pieces tossed into the air, landing willy nilly.

I abandoned English as my major and decided instead to study Sociology. Screw studying anything that made my love for books feel like squeezing myself into a pair of Spanx. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t want to read anymore. What was the point?

So, I decided that I would study something meaningful, something that fought against devastating social problems: racism, sexism, poverty, drug addiction, violence, and I loved it. I clung to the idealism that I might, in some small way, change the world. If I wasn’t a writer, then at least I could be useful somehow.

My last semester in school was an internship, and I chose to work at the university’s lab for counseling students, which served both children and adults. Casa Esperanza. House of Hope. It was there that I began working with children, holding groups for troubled kids at a nearby elementary school. I had never given much thought to working with kids, but after hearing a six-year-old talk about how his dad got drunk all the time, I thought about how vulnerable children could be, how they needed help too.

The internship led to my being recommended for a position as a children’s program coordinator for the Even Start Family Literacy program with the local school district. The program was twofold: undereducated people who fell below a certain income level were invited to attend an adult education program where they could learn English (many people in our area are immigrants from Mexico), or they could work toward obtaining a high school equivalency diploma. While the adults attended classes, their children attended an early childhood education program. My job was to oversee this program and inspire a love of reading and learning in each child who passed through our doors.

On my first day of work, my director sat the entire team down in a classroom and asked each of us to tell a little about ourselves and say what we’d most like to accomplish one day. One by one, the women around the table spoke, and as each person finished, it came closer and closer to my turn. My heart pounded in my chest, my stomach knotted. How was I going to answer? I’d barely written anything except college assignments the last few years, but still, that voice whispered in my head…writer.

When it came to my turn, I babbled on a bit about myself, then, my mouth moving quickly, anxiety making the words tumble out, I said, “Someday, I would like to write a novel.”

Their eyes, now all fixed on me, grew wide. “A writer. Wow,” I heard.

I guess it wasn’t what they expected to hear, but shortly after, I forgot all about it, because, oh my gosh, the kids! They came to our center, their eyes lit up when they saw the shelves of books I’d painstakingly chosen for them, and it was like a flipped light switch in my head. Watching them stream into the colorful classrooms each day, seeing the smiles bloom on their faces as they snatched a book from the shelf, eyes wide at the vibrant illustrations, their love for books growing, some hard part inside me went soft. Parents soon graced me with stories about how now, their children climbed into their laps every day clutching books in their small hands, begging for them to be read.

I was proud of this work, and somehow, even though I’d given up that English major, I felt more connected to what books really were—enjoyment, fun. It was like I was being connected to a time when I was that young, when I loved books, when I loved to think of stories.

A year later, after marrying a wonderful man I’d met before college, I had my first child, a girl. Something inside me shifted profoundly now. Whatever inkling I’d had of this change during my work with kids, had now become something bigger. I gained a new level of confidence, those old doubts and fears that had plagued me as a young adult began to slowly shed away, and I grew new skin. I was a mother. MOTHER. Tough. A love warrior. A woman who had a purpose, who mattered to this tiny human being whom I was to nurture and love. And I thought, if I could be a mother, maybe, just maybe, I could be a writer too. Soon after, I wrote my first story (of my adulthood)—the story of how my daughter came into this world.

My son was born three years later. Night after night, day after day, I read my kids stories from authors like Kevin Henkes, Mo Willems, and Jan Brett, and soon, the child in me began to awaken, the one who had read for hours in her crib, the one who had painstakingly typed out stories on an old typewriter, the one who hadn’t doubted herself.

I began to write in earnest again, sweating through the difficulty, the doubt that tried to creep up on me. I kept going. Working.

I’d finally realized that writing, like loving my husband, my children, is a verb. A verb that requires daily work in the trenches. Some days, writing comes easy, and some days the kids are happy and everything runs smoothly and you feel like Superwriter, Supermom. Other days, your daughter throws a tantrum, your son pukes all over the bathroom, that new recipe you try sucks, and you snap at your dear husband who just got home from work and has only just said hello. Those days, when the words just won’t come and everything you write is crap, and you’re sure you’ll never write anything worth anything.

So you keep going through the no-good-terrible-really-bad days because that’s what you do. You love even when you’re angry. You write even when you hate, more than anything in the world, that blank page and any words you put on it. That’s what makes you a writer, getting down and dirty and coming back out of the muck every day to start again. I guess you might call that “growing up.” That’s when you’re really living. That’s when you’re really writing. That’s real.

“Life imitates art more than art imitates life,” Oscar Wilde said. But in some ways, living, doing the work that life and writing takes, is an art in itself. And so much art is created out of the mire of living.

To do anything and do it well takes work. Mothering. Working. Writing. When I made writing a verb, not just a label, I could finally call myself a writer, I could finally say those words out loud. I got lots of rejection letters after submitting stories and articles for publication. Cried over at least half of them. But still, I’ve churned out numerous picture book manuscripts, short stories, novels, and magazine articles. I won’t lie and say I write every day. Sometimes I don’t. But I’m committed to it, and so I always come back.

And now, I don’t freak out when someone asks me what I do. I have a long list of things that fill my time these days working as an editor the most prominent). But at least now, I can actually say out loud (to another human being no less), “I’m a writer.”

I guess I’ve earned it.

In a Perfect Word Editing

My name is Erin Beth Liles, and I have several years of editing experience. Aside from my bachelor's degree, I have a certificate in copyediting from UC San Diego, and I have studied developmental editing with the Author-Editor Clinic. I've worked with both independent and major publishing houses, but my true love is working directly with authors. I also write young adult fiction. My YA novel, Phoenix Burning, is represented by Mansion Street Literary (and I have another novel in progress) and my short stories have been published in Stories for Children Magazine and Knowonder. Several of my nonfiction articles have appeared in Austin Family Magazine, Mothering Magazine online, and Mamapedia. I also have a picture book forthcoming with Guardian Angel Publishing. My novelette, Outside the Walls, is featured in Clean Teen Publishing's Wonderstruck Anthology. I am a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Copyediting, and She Writes.