Happy National Day on Writing. Only remembered this morning that today was the day. I’m going to put it into my calendar so I don’t forget again. People on Twitter have been responding to the hashtag #WhyIWrite, so obviously there have been some real gems floating about as well as some of the usual platitudes about writing.
I was working on something I rushed to finish so I could run outta the office, get to the library, and think about it before I wasted the rest of the day away letting my mind flitter back to technical things, baseball scores, and whatever’s on the DVR that needs to be watched.
So why do I write? I used to have grand notions of changing the world, fighting and righting all the injustice once and for all, and telling stories that one day, people would read by the campfire and their bedroom night lights. Along the way, I discovered I wasn’t up for changing the world, yet; I had to change myself first, or at least at the same time. And I discovered that I loved theatre and drama as much as I loved straight ahead literature, and if people read plays as much in the future as they do now, I might not be read then as much as I’d hoped.
I also discovered that my goals didn’t have to be so lofty for me to do something important or valuable.
I used to hate writing. Reading, too. My sister Charlene recently told me a story about when I was five or so. My younger sister Kellee and I had gone to visit her and my sister Robin, my father, and his fiancee, in California. When my father brought us home from the airport, Charlene asked me what I liked doing and I told her, “read.” She told me she thought, “I gotta loosen this kid up.” I was pretty wound tightly on reading and writing then. My mother had drilled and drilled and drilled me to the point where all I did most of the time was read. She’d read with me and taught me how to read, but after I got really going, I did all the reading.
I read the Baltimore Sun and the Evening Sun, to my mom, often. I had a set of Childcraft Encyclopedias that I pored over and read frequently. My favorite book was the one on physical sciences (my least favorite was the gold one, which, if my memory serves me correctly, was on animals. I thought it was insulting that people would always ask me about which animals I liked, just because I was a kid.). I wore out the spine on the fat, yellow Childcraft dictionary, too.
In kindergarten, I loved this little book called Freight Train. It was mostly pictures of the types of rail cars and few words, so after a while, the teachers didn’t want me reading it. I hid it on a random shelf in the rear of the library, so whenever we were brought down to the library, I could find it and read it again and again. It was a small diversion from the heavier stuff I’d be reading when I got home.
I didn’t read any of the kids stuff. Didn’t like it. Even now, people talk about all the fun kids things they liked reading: Hardy Boys Mysteries? Nope. Nancy Drew? Nope. Judy Blume? Nope. I don’t remember how, but at school, they got me to read It and A Stitch in Time. I cheated when reading A Stitch in Time. I skipped a bunch of pages. I got the gist of the story and my explanation of it seemed to satisfy the folks who had made me read it. To the extent that I could bullshit my way through all the reading we had to do, I would. I did the barest minimum I could get away with (which wasn’t that much, given how my mother was). I tried, though.
This same story of my being assigned reading and my mother having to take drastic measures to get me to do it, carried on all the way to middle school. I’d do the readings, but I hated, HATED them. I still read the newspaper, always the sports section, but I even started doing that less. I was reading my encyclopedas less, too. I had indeed been seduced by the tube, but I was probably just burned out on reading. With the exception of the sports section, I seemed to always be reading something I didn’t care to be. This wasn’t fun, it was a chore.
I was trying to find out my thing.
My 6th grade English teacher, Ms. Baumgartner, was vexed.
She knew I was a good reader but couldn’t figure out why I just wouldn’t just do it. Things weren’t in my favor, though, as I wasn’t doing too well. I eventually felt safe enough to say out loud the truth I’d never felt confident enough to say: I really hated everything the school made us read. Never liked any of it, ever, and given how stubborn I was, it took my mother almost yelling, screaming, and threatening me to get me into these books.
Ms. Baumgartner asked me what I really liked, loved, and would read about.
I told her baseball.
Baseball was then, as it still is, my favorite sport. I loved watching it. I loved playing it. I wanted to be a baseball player when I grew up. My love of baseball helped me get through 5th grade (another story) and in some ways then, changed my life and would change it even more (even though I didn’t know it then).
As much as I told her baseball because it was a real passion, I was being a smart ass. I thought there’s no way she’ll ever let me read a book on baseball for class.
We went to the library and walked around until she found a book on baseball that would be suitable for me.
World Series Memories.
The drill was the same: I was to read this book and report back on what I’d read. It was a good book. I read it and even did the report. Eventually. I even didn’t mind it. I even seek out more books on baseball to read (I found a few books on basketball, but I said no thanks, not the same thing), but what I’d discover later wasn’t just that I enjoyed books on baseball. I didn’t care for those kids books because I really loved reading nonfiction. Most of the books we’d been reading were some genre of fiction.
Back in 5th grade, one day, I’d missed a homework assignment. How I got home the night before and back out of the house without finishing this assignment, I’ll never know. Yet, there I was, sitting in class, without having written my essay. And despite the fact that Mr. Marchetti was standing over me, ignoring the rest of the class for a couple of moments, asking where it was, and after getting my less-than-satisfactory answer, assigning me to do the essay over, right there, in class, I was not having it.
I’d hated writing. The majority of the writing we did, that I remember, was book reports, responsive writing, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I hated it. HATED IT. Read this book, tell the teacher back what it said. Why, I’d wonder when I was much younger, did I have to read the book and spit it right back out to the teacher? I even thought once to tell a teacher that the whole enterprise was stupid, that they knew what the book said, and that my telling them what it said didn’t prove anything. Especially once they taught us how to properly quote. They told us to quote but not only quote, not only repeat the book back. If I’m reporting the book back to them, wasn’t I just repeating it back to them anyway? And why do I care what this person said in some obscure novel a few hundred years ago? Why does this matter?
We didn’t do much other writing. We read poems, but we didn’t dare write them. Poems were for reading and analyzing and therefore, hating. Which I didn’t, however. This was different. I started writing my own poems at home. Bad poems that a 10 year old might write. But I liked it.
But what I didn’t like was essays. And Mr. Marchetti was standing over me, demanding an essay.
I don’t even remember what we were supposed to write about. Mostly because I wasn’t paying attention, but Mr. Marchetti gave me the option of writing what I wanted to write. And that still wasn’t good enough. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. I didn’t actually care. I didn’t want to do it and to hell with it. Plus, I’d forgotten the stupid essay format (which really was and is still, stupid) that we’d learned and really gone over in 4th grade (another story).
So I took the paper he gave me and on the top line, instead of writing essay, I wrote “SA.” On the lines below, I probably wrote about how much I didn’t want to do it and how much I hated it.
That went over as well as one might expect.
I kept on scribbling my little poems. By the time I was in 6th grade, my boy Brandon and I were rapping. I still was fighting all of the whole entire school on reading and writing, but outside of school, I was doing my own thing.
The summer before 9th grade, though, I had a Come to Jesus moment, with my mother.
The school I’d been assigned to, Baltimore City College, better known to Baltimoreans everywhere as simply City, had mailed home the summer reading assignment for its Honors (A course) students. My classmates everywhere were opening their mail to find out that we had three books to read that summer and we were expected to do exactly what I hated to do: respond to them. In a journal.
Before, my mother had had to use one negative possibility or another as a means of motivating me to do the reading and the writing required in school. Now, I was going to City, but that was a privilege. The outcome of not doing well at City: failing out and being sent to my zone school, in this case, Northern. Or if I was lucky, I might somehow get a shot at redemption at Mervo. But even so, going to Northern wasn’t going to happen. If I’d washed out of City, I’d have to go to California with my dad. His brand of house discipline would be good for me in that case.
We went and got a marble notebook and the books.
I decided to read the shortest first.
Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind
People actually wrote like this?
I knew some of the church where he’d been raised, that he rebelled against.
Who were these people he’d dined with? They believed that God was Black? People talked about racism in this way? It wasn’t just how things were?
My world started to lay itself bare the first time I read The Fire Next Time.
It opened itself up even more when I got to the next assigned book, Native Son.
I’d never read anything like those.
All the times employees followed us around Eddie’s Super Market or Woolworth’s or some other store.
The swastikas painted on the back wall of the gym at school.
The looks we’d get walking up or down Roland Avenue.
I’d understood these things in a prima facie way, but these great works put me squarely into the minds and worlds of great writers, great thinkers, which helped me understand my own.
This is one thing good writing can do. There are many more. Whole books have been written.
On the back end, my Aunt Brenda began feeding my growing love of books. My mother must have told her about her struggles trying to get me to read something, anything, because eventually, my aunt would do what Ms. Baumgartner did: give me things I liked to read. My aunt’s bookshelves were full, 2 books deep on each shelf, of books by black writers. History, sociology, a few novels, essays, everything. I had access to nearly her whole library. All I had to do was read the book, not destroy it, promptly give it back.
Before I got out of high school, we’d read many more great books, many more great writers. Achebe. Morrison. Shakespeare. Those were among my favorites.
The writing continued.
We’d write our own poems in class in 10th grade. Finally. Sonnets. Ballads. Free verse.
In 11th grade, when we began reading philosophy, we didn’t have to just regurgitate what we’d read; no, we were encouraged to develop our own ideas about the subjects we’d been reading about, and to write them.
Even my history teachers encouraged me to explore my writing.
All of this combined with my rapping and poetry, I found a love of writing, of letters. And in some ways, it did change my life. Even through all the false starts and disappointments, I still love reading and writing.
A great book or play or essay or poem or memoir or biography or whatever, can do that.
August Wilson said:
I try to explore in terms of the life I know best those things which are common to all culture, so while the specifics in the play are black, the commonalities of culture are larger. There are universal realities in the play.
That’s the space where I want to be. I want to explore the life I know best. I hope I can one day, say some things that matter to someone else’s life. The way that writers like August and James Baldwin and Richard Wright and many others have done for me. That’s why I write. Or at least one reason.