This is what I’ve been posting about on social media, this work of arriving, and especially the first steps, private, painfully self-conscious, but so important for momentum. When I was in college, especially when I was indefinitely dropped out of college, I did a lot of floundering because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. I thought I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what to do in order to be and/or become a writer. So I was stuck, and part of it was feeling so stunted from not being able to finish college. I eventually did, of course, after I just couldn’t stand it anymore, being so sad all the time, wanting so bad to do something, but not doing it, and not knowing why you’re not doing it. And then making excuses for not doing it.
Sometimes, many times, wanting to become a writer is like this. I think we all know — we’d have to be in utter denial not to — that becoming a writer is work. Studying, reading, thinking — all of these are work. And writing is work. Even if we love it, it’s work. I say these things, because no matter what people say, we value writing because it’s work, because it’s hard work.
I remember my private journals full of proto-poetry, inchoate poems, overwrought and earnest, writings entirely unpublishable. I don’t know that I would die of shame if any of you were to see these now. They would just be evidence that I was beginning to envision and practice committing my words to the page, editing, tweaking word choices, line breaks that weren’t quite there, weren’t quite right. I was experimenting. My journals were hardcover, marbled, glossy. The pages were edged in gold leaf. The pens I used to hand write my poems in these marbled journals were fountain pens — at first, Pilot Varsity disposable fountain pens. And then a Waterman Laureat fountain pen, also blue marbled. Super fancy. I was creating, building a kind of poet-ness about me. I was all about English Romantic poetry, but without formal knowledge of romanticism and rebellion (I might have had an inkling; it had to appeal to me for some reason).
All of this before I ever finished college, before I ever took creative writing classes. Everything I had written up to this point was all instinctive. Lots of copying the styles of others (see “English Romantic poetry,” above), work you would call derivative. But. I say all of this, because it’s important to start somewhere. Envision the thing, get yourself into place, start figuring out how to plan, start trying to do the thing. Learn to be brave. This can happen slowly, and that’s fine. This isn’t a race.
Certainly, it helped to find mentors who expressed interest in what work I had already done; it helped tremendously that they gave me some of their space and time. I wish I could tell you what they saw in me. Earnestness? Hunger? Persistence? (Heaven forbid,) talent? These were the folks who propelled me into my graduate program, into publishing, and further into publishing. After Poeta en San Francisco won the Laughin, one of my mentors immediately checked in with me to say, this is great, but what are you working on now; keep moving. I then asked another one of my mentors his opinion about one small press I’d thought of submitting my Diwata manuscript to. He told me I could do better by my work. He told me to be more ambitious, to think bigger. Then I landed a BOA Editions contract.
I write all of this, hoping I am being helpful. Young people do ask, how I came to do what I do. They wonder how they may also. I share what I can. I do my best to be both encouraging and real. Anything worth pursuing is going to be hard work. Be wary of those offering you shortcuts, cut corners, glossing over the details of what the work entails. Be realistic with your expectations. Be prepared to work hard. Expect critique. Expect to be humbled. Take nothing for granted. Listen to your trusted elders when they challenge you. They could be pushing, propelling you into amazing places.