I finished my masters thesis last month and over the last few weeks I’ve been sharing it with friends and colleagues who are interested in my research, or at least polite enough to show an interest in my most recent pursuits. My pal Ethan, with whom I have carried on a delightfully intellectual friendship for many years now, asked for a copy. A few pages in he sent me this note:
“Your prose is, if I may say so, extremely readable for an academic piece, which is no small feat.”
“Ha!” I was delighted by this feedback from a friend I respect, but I also thought: “of course it is!” I’ve spent years figuring out the best ways to explain dry and technical stuff (how fabric and clothes are made, and why anybody should care) to reenactors (I love them, but…) and tourists (who, as we used to say, leave their brains at home when they go on vacation). I love nothing more than explaining how something is made in a way that makes the most sense to the largest number of people. Clear and readable writing is kind of my thing.
And that got me thinking. Five years ago, when I graduated from undergrad, what were my literary ambitions? Did I dream of putting down elegant and flowery prose, or pounding the page with impenetrable terminology designed to show how much I knew? What kind of writer did I want to be? What about ten years ago, when I graduated from high school? What about in sixth grade, when I was back in the classroom for the first time after three years of homeschooling, in which time I painstakingly learned to read with the help of a tutor who specialized in helping dyslexic kids?
The answer, of course, was that I never dreamed I would enjoy writing. I was dyslexic. I was flat out bad at the mechanics of it all. Writing was slow and painful. My dream was that it would be less of those things.
It was in seventh grade, in a writing class for homeschooled teens, when I first became aware that being bad at physically putting words on the page was different from not having anything to say. It was a fiery ninth-grade humanities teacher (thank you. Really, thank you, Mr. Blynt) who first sparked in me the desire to impress someone with my words. It was the Foundation Year at King’s, where there was a 1500 word essay due every other Monday morning, that refined my work. It was sewing instructions and costume guidelines that taught me that there was a place for short sentences and easy descriptive language. And it was this blog that gave me a chance to let fly with words when inspiration or injustice meant that I had Something To Say.
Over the past two years, the crucible that is grad school melted all this down. The self doubt of the dyslexic kid, the late reader, the crappy speller, burned off the top in thin wisps of smoke. With it went the perfectionist’s need for third, forth, and fifth drafts, and at least some of the craving to impress people. That which was left, distilled and recombined, was a dense soup of self-confidence and ability that tapped out 30,000 words this winter — good words, that are easy to read and have something to say.
Let me say that writing this post first occurred to me a couple of days ago, a few minutes after Ethan’s comment appeared in my inbox. It was then that I asked myself what kind of writer I had wanted to be at 23, 18, 12. It made me cry, and my eyes are watering now too, because of all my plans for how my life would go, it never occurred to me that I would love spilling words onto a page. It is a sweet, sweet victory to go from being the one girl in second grade who cannot ever seem to copy down the letters fast enough, to turning in your masters thesis.
Perhaps most rewarding of all is the fact that I’m not craving a break from my keyboard. Rather, I’m craving the time for new projects — time to let the bright thoughts and clear language in my mind manifest itself on paper. This is the bigger victory: the looking-forward towards new projects with anticipation and glee; the knowledge that now is the moment when I can ask myself what kind of writer I want to be, not as a pipe dream but as a clear ambition; and the awareness that, having come this far, I can surely make it happen.