Shame isn’t something I’m generally accustomed to feeling. Not long ago, though, entirely by accident, one of my dear friends shamed me. It sounds rather silly, to be honest, but it’s true.
I was reading her blog (a worthwhile past time on any day, but especially those when you need to be uplifted) and she had done an interview about her brand new novel that’s about to come out.
As is typical in these interviews, they asked about her background. Now, I know this particular friend has written her whole life. But there was one line that truly blew my mind.
Between the ages of eight and twenty-five, I was a poet.
I read, and reread the line, all the while saying of course you were. Of course you were.
So was I.
So why have I never said that? Why have I never taken pride in my creativity?
Here’s Alethea’s full answer to the question:
I have always written. Between the ages of eight and twenty-five, I was a poet. I started my first novel in the seventh grade. I wrote short stories all through high school and college. I was filling up journals long before anyone conceived of the word "blog." I wrote to entertain myself and my friends, and I dreamed about having a novel published one day based on the fairy tales I'd loved as a child. I started my first novel in the seventh grade. I wrote short stories all through high school and college. I was filling up journals long before anyone conceived of the word "blog." I wrote to entertain myself and my friends, and I dreamed about having a novel published one day based on the fairy tales I'd loved as a child.
Now she and I were different, because it wasn’t until I was in college that I even thought about writing for actual publication, and that’s when my professors were kind enough to saddle me with these two bon mots: “The style is too informed by B-Grade detective fiction” and “You’re not good enough to be published.”
No wonder I stopped writing for so long. College sapped the creative right out of me. Yes, I dreamed about it, thought about it, and once, after being laid off, made an abortive attempt at writing a novel a la Patricia Cornwell. But that was back in '97, and three chapters in I recognized it was such sheer, unadulterated crap that I stopped.
But the bug was back under my skin, even though it took until 2000 or so for me to entertain the thought, back surgery to force me into reading crime fiction, and 2002 for me to try putting pen to page again.
Here’s what I normally say when asked if I’ve always been a writer. I’ve said this so many times I can hear my own voice in my head as I write it down.
I’ve always written. I did the obligatory horrible poetry and some short stories in elementary through high school, all of which should be burned.
Self-destructive language there. It’s almost as if I’ve been taking pride in the negative parts of my writing past, rather than openly acknowledge that I’ve been a poet since I was a child.
What I should be saying is I’ve been a poet since I could hold a pencil. Which is the truth.
Why am I embarrassed to admit that I’ve always been a scribbler? Because the work doesn’t meet my standards? Because it won’t meet yours? Because if someone were to read something I wrote before I was a “legitimate” writer, they may think less of me, or not buy my new book? Will they hold it against me?
I was ten when I won my first writing contest, and had a poem printed in the county newspaper. Trust me, this was a VERY BIG DEAL. And yet… have you ever heard me talk about it? Because I have, just not in the way I just phrased it above. Instead, tell me if you recognize this line:
I received my first rejection at the age of ten.
Yes, that’s me, talking about the same poem that won all these huge accolades. The poem happens to be about slavery, which we had been studying it at school, and I’d read and watched Roots with that kind of childish awe that is monumental. It was my first taste of injustice, and it really spoke to me. After the poem was published in the newspaper, my GranMary took it upon herself to submit it – to True Confessions magazine. I rode the squee high of being published until I received that little piece of paper that said Dear JT, this isn’t right for us.
A crushing blow. (Not really. Even as a ten-year-old, I had a keen sense of market, and knew this wasn’t exactly the right place for my poem.)
But. I’ve spent the past several years, since I became a writer …. See, there I go again. I can’t even see myself as a writer until I was “accepted” and “legitimized” by writing a novel that I was paid for.
That’s just wrong, damn it. I’ve always been a writer. It’s just that now I write for publication.
Alethea’s interview was ironic timing, since just the week before I’d been speaking at a library event, and was asked and answered the have you always been a writer question with my usual, what I thought was self-deprecating humor, and my husband made one of his thoughtful comments afterward, when we were in the car on the way home and I asked him how I did. He said, “You know, you probably shouldn’t talk down about your earlier writing.”
We talked a little about it, but it wasn’t until I saw Alethea’s interview, and thought about how she’s owned her creative streak from day one, and how excited and happy that makes her, and in turn makes me, because if you know Alethea at all, you will find her enthusiasm is more than catching, that I realized that I need to stop worrying about hiding my past as a closet poet. Just because the name on the paper changed, it doesn’t negate everything I wrote prior to signing those contracts.
Perhaps this is all just a symptom of the fact that I do use a pseudonym, and really like my privacy, and as such, I focus all my promotional efforts on “J.T. Ellison” rather than little old me. I tend to keep the two separate, suspended above the gorge, pulling from each world depending on what situation I’m in. So far it’s worked. But I think it’s time to allow the creative part of my earlier life into my current world. Or at least acknowledge that I’ve been doing this for a while now.
I’m J.T. Ellison, and I’m a writer. Always have been. Always will be.
And to prove it, here it is, in all its humble, unedited, ten-year-old dream glory, the poem that launched a thousand ships.
Out of my wilderness,
I was taken
I was so scared
My knees were shakin’
Then they threw me on
That dirty old boat
Without a cover
Or a coat
I was sent to the new land
Across the sea
When suddenly it dawned on me
My mama and papa
They left back there
`Cause they were old of bone
And white of hair
No longer a princess
I would be
A slave of
Some cruel family
My mama and papa
They taught me
To be the best
That I could be
I knew someday
That I’d be free
But that day came
Without a family
I struggled through
But when I finished
The world had a look
Almost too bad to see
I learned to write
As you can see
But please preserve
The life of me
And here I lay
In the cold dark ground
I died in the year 1787
But memories of me
Are still being made
When the artifacts of me
Have been found again
Preserve my life
I’m in heaven.
JT Ellison - 1979
PS: In a nice bit of serendipity, Word Nerd was my very first ever interview, way back in November 2006, a full year before my first book was ever published…