I wrote this essay a year before my illness. Sometimes I look at what I wrote then and wish I had my brain back. But the illness cracked my self-possession. I might not write as well now, but I feel more.
My cell phone clutched in my hand, I looked unseeingly out of the skylight, which was covered by the gray icy fingers of rain.
“I am flabbergasted,” I said when I reached my friend’s answering machine. “I just read my brother’s story and it is better than the story . . . you know, the one I asked you to read . . . the one that took two years of studying story forms to write. Call me back.”
Gawd. This talent . . . this brother shook me to the core. I was the writer. I had experienced life. I had been a typesetter, a sailor, a technician, and a sales-clerk. All this life I had experienced so that I could write, feel the muse breathe down my neck and whisper in my ear. When I finally put pen to paper, I found that I must learn fiction. Fiction had a form. So I read the writing books. I could curse. “Nothing in fiction happens without a reason.” But, life is not that way. Take this my brother, who is more talented than myself.
I am not jealous. I am not jealous. If I say it like a mantra, maybe it won’t be true? Am I jealous of this brother, this child of my heart?
This brother, just three days from his birth, had been thrust into my arms. Then, I had been a child of fourteen. My mother had had enough of his “neediness.” He cried and cried and cried and cried when she held him, but . . . he did not cry in my arms. I held him, rocked him, settled him, and loved him.
I read to him, before he had the structure of language imprinted on his brain, books like Les Miserables, The Counte of Monte Christo, The Hunchback of Notre Dam, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I was, I am a voracious reader and I read them all to him.
I hushed him when his nerves, exacerbated by our parents’ constant fighting, screamed to be released. In the soft night as I rocked him to sleep, I even thought of nursing him, my soft buds, not-yet-developed, ached with the need to feel his soft mouth there. This baby, this child . . . now a man surpassed me, his surrogate mother.
Pride and envy brawled in my breast for dominance.
Pride surged because this brother, who I hand-raised until three, had absorbed the craft of writing through me. I knew he had never studied the craft. Gawd. My parents had made sure that he never went to school. They believed that a child would learn everything he or she needed to know through osmosis. And, maybe in my brother’s case it was so.
Envy surged because he had, in one or two essays, captivated his freshman professor and internalized the fiction form. I had struggled for the last nine-months with my fiction. Many of the stories I had written were missing a component or two and sometimes did not make sense. Why did a character do what he or she did? How could I understand it if my characters did not either? I read how-to books about fiction writing before my first epiphany stunned me—how rising action works. He, my brother, used rising action after only two tries.
This mixture of pride and envy does not interfere with my brutal honesty: no, that part of me seems to have a life of its own. So, here I go. When my brother confided in me of the compliments he was getting from his professor, I made myself critic his pieces—not as a rival, but as a mentor. I told him it was good and that I could see why his professor was excited about his writing in comparison to other freshmen writers. But, I cautioned him that talent was not enough—a good writer, which I assumed he was becoming, must constantly think and work on his craft.
I think he was a little embarrassed at the attention he was getting from this professor. If he could trade this talent for something useful like shrewdness in business or an intuitive feel for the stock market, he would trade it—not because a “mess of pottage” tastes better than talent, but because one day he would like to raise a family. Admit it. Writers are on the low-end of the money tree. Writers do not lead glamorous lives. Check who gets noticed—writers or actors. Unless you are Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, as a writer, you need a second job.
So why do I write? How can I explain the sweet seductive sound of words as they scroll across the page—words that I have written? How can I explain the same seduction when I see my words in print? I put these words on paper, knowing that I will never make enough money from them to pay for the cost of it, knowing that my rewards are of a transcendent nature.
Stop my ears. Take my pen away. Lash me to the mast. These actions will not save me. I am in the grip of the siren. I am a writer.