Once upon a time, I had a teacher who gave us the assignment of rewriting the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It was a fairly standard assignment for second grade students, and most of the submissions were fairly standard works produced by seven- and eight-year-old children. The word “was” had been misspelled as “wuz” and no one could make hide nor hair of “because.” Sentences were simple or had appalling grammar. And beyond that, the stories lacked the nuances of plot, characterization, setting that one might expect of a more mature fiction writer. Except, apparently, my story.
My teacher told me that I was a writer. She said it as though it was this wonderful thing and I should be very proud. But I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be the next Vivien Leigh (I had a flare for melodrama at that age). And I didn’t like having a teacher define me when I knew exactly who I was and what I wanted.
The trouble was, year after year, my teachers continued to define me as a writer from then on. And I became increasingly annoyed. I was entering adolescence (I was an early bloomer), and having adults tell me who I was irked me to no end. Shouldn’t I know who I am better than anyone else does? Shouldn’t I get to decide how to define myself? So when teachers continued to say that I was a writer, I would smile politely, and then ignore them.
And then I read the Harry Potter books.
Let me back track a little. I have suffered from chronic insomnia for as long as I can remember, and as a small child, lying in bed for more than an hour trying to fall asleep every single night was incredibly boring. So I told myself stories. At first they were retellings or additions to whatever book I was reading, movie or TV episode I had just finished watching. It was fan fiction, and much less original than are many of those stories.
But eventually I began to create my own stories, my own characters, and continue the stories as epic sagas for several months before moving on to the next one. I never wrote them down, they just lived in my head and were picked up every night to continue where I had left off the night before.
And then I read the Harry Potter books.
My imagination caught fire. I came up with an “original” idea for a novel that was a complete rip-off of the Harry Potter concept. But I thought it was original and I poured my heart and soul into coming up with plot points, scenes, character development, every aspect of writing a novel I could think of. And I was writing these ideas down.
Eventually I realized that what I was writing was so far from original that I would never be able to have it published, and so I started working on a new project. One that was my own idea, akin to the stories I had told myself while falling asleep for all those years. Then I got an idea for another one. Then I got an idea for an entire series. I never finished any of these novels; usually never even wrote more than a few chapters. But I was constantly working on them.
I wasn’t a particularly driven student at the time, so I wrote and drew maps and outlined instead of doing homework, and often instead of paying attention during class. The stories consumed me. I had found the most powerful drug on earth: the act of creation.
And still I did not identify as a writer.
I was enrolled at an arts school at the time and taking creative writing classes, and they were boring. The writing prompts were meant for poetry or “journalism” or they were leads for stories that just didn’t interest me. My creative writing teachers weren’t particularly interested in my writing, just as I wasn’t interested in what they were teaching. So why would I have identified as a writer?
However, one day my creative writing teacher was out and another teacher in the department with whom I had never taken a class was substituting for him. He gave us a prompt. The prompt was intriguing. I got an idea. I started writing furiously, and had not even finished introducing my setting and character when time was called.
He had us read out what we had written, and I was mildly embarrassed in reading my piece because it wasn’t finished and for once I actually cared about it. I had never cared about a story I had written for school before. What if he thought it was terrible? What if he did not think I was adequate to pursue this passion that had driven me for the past year, that I was thinking of shaping my life around, that I would be lost without if it was suddenly taken away?
He didn’t. He loved what I had written. And when he referred to me as a writer in passing, finally I believed it.