Portrait of the Writer as a Young Girl

I remember being in line at the school cafeteria in elementary school and reading the menu taped to the glass. Our main course for the day was “Real Pork Chops.” As I plopped my tray on the counter and reached for a white milk I made a comment to the girl in line behind me, “REAL pork chops? What kind of pork chops have we been eating?” She smiled slightly. I tried again with the boy in front of me, “REAL pork chops!” He ignored me. I have now learned that when life presents funny shit, like the sudden appearance of the word “real” in front of a meat product we have been eating all school year, I should just pocket that morsel so I can write about it later. Thirty years later.

I wasn’t a writer then. I was quiet. I started writing when I got to high school. I had an amazing eleventh-grade English teacher who stopped me in the hall one day outside of class to tell me that I was a good writer. She put something I wrote in a student publication, and I felt haughty. I am sure whatever I wrote was not funny. I was dark and stormy in my writing back then. I kept a diary in high school, and when I read it years later my eyes darted across the page with increasing panic, and then I threw it in the trash. The girl in that diary was terrifyingly pathetic and morose. I probably should have been suicidal, but I wasn’t nearly that interesting. Mainly I just wrote about how I wanted a boyfriend, or at least just for a boy—any boy—to notice that I was alive. A smoke signal sending puffs of “You probably exist or whatever” would have sufficed. I spent four pages writing about how I wanted to get with some boy at a party, but he liked someone else. That is not a four-page story. That is a sentence. That is a clause that introduces a better sentence, “I wanted to get with him, but he liked someone else, so I said ‘fuck it’ and drank six Solos of hunch punch and then passed out in a ditch.” No, wait. “I wanted to get with him, but he liked someone else, probably because I never talked to him or expressed any interest whatsoever, so I am going to just laugh with my friends and not be a sorry loser.” Better.

The odd thing is that I remember being a mostly happy teenager. I smiled a lot. I loved my friends. I felt accepted. I did not date much, and at the time that circumstance apparently consumed me. The gist of my tragic diary was me trying to figure out who I was. I did not think I was unattractive. I wasn’t completely sure, but looking around it seemed there were certainly people uglier than me finding “love” (and by “love” I mean making out in the parking lot). Maybe my big hair and my quadro-boobs (in order to keep up with the growing rate of my breasts in high school I would have had to buy a new bra approximately every thirty seconds, so my bras were always too small) were confusing to teenage boys, or maybe I made too many wisecracks about meat products; there was no way to know for sure what was wrong with me. With my diary I was just trying to explore how I fit into the world around me.

I started to read humor writing when I was in high school. They used to run Dave Barry’s Miami Herald column in the Sunday edition of our Tallahassee paper. My mom would cut it out for me and leave it on the counter. I probably increased his teenage girl readership to one. When I was twenty-two I read Bridget Jones Diary, and I started to emulate her writing, usually while I was bored at work. I remember writing a few paragraphs about being home sick. I wrote that I was in bed shivering, so I kept layering on more clothes and by the morning I looked like a homeless snowman, and then I wrote “My mom came by to check on me and put the back of her palm on my forehead. It was official. I had a fever.” For some reason those sentences stayed with me. I saw that I had done something clever. My meaning was bigger than my actual words. I started to understand that writing was magic.

I went to college and studied creative writing. At first, I wrote entirely in comma splices, “I ran down the hill, the hot sand burned my feet, the sand spurs licked at my heels.” I had a few teachers that just let me write error-full prose, and I think they did me a service, but sort of like when you let your toddler explore the yard, you give him freedom, but you follow closely behind and grab him before he stumbles out into oncoming traffic. Eventually a teacher returned a decent story to me caked in red marks. I rewrote it and replaced all the comma splices with periods. I presented the edited version to a writing workshop in my senior year, and the class hated it because it was choppy and had no flow. One student demonstrated by reading the entire paper out loud in a robot voice. I credit my experience in those writing workshops with my ability to take criticism. I will stand naked before you, and we can talk about my flaws.

I started to read more, too. Nonfiction. Funny shit. When I lived in Austin I used to hang out at the Book People bookstore, next to the Whole Foods on North Lamar. I leaned up against shelves and slid to the floor, immersed in reading. They had a small, but eclectic humor section. I bought every copy of a book titled The Wild Goose Chronicles by filmmaker Trent Harris, which includes a clever mix of photos and text about his travels around the world. I used to give the book as a gift to guys I was dating-slash-just sleeping with. I am not sure what I meant by the gesture. Here is a book that is probably on your level—it has lots of pictures and is about a futile pursuit.  It was more of a parting gift, mainly because shortly after I gave them the book they would break up with me.

I stopped writing when I got married and started having kids. I was busy, sure, but I also no longer felt the need to relentlessly carve out my identity. Then I went back to grad school, but I still wasn’t writing anything fun. The writing I was doing for my classes was sometimes returned with comments like “great ideas, but your writing lacks clarity.” The fact that my writing was garbled, at times even weak, didn’t matter nearly as much as my ability to engage in thoughtful analysis. Writing was just a conduit, which to me seemed like using a framed two dollar bill to buy a pack of cigarettes. I even started to believe that maybe I wasn’t a writer; maybe I was just someone who was smart and had thought-provoking ideas about literature and the writing process. Then I got a grip. I put the gun back in the drawer and remembered who I really am. My dad was on Judge Judy. I serve beer at my kids’ birthday parties. I cannot be trusted.

Then I did a summer writing workshop with a group of teachers. We did some creative writing, and I cranked out more pages than I had written in years. I learned the most valuable writing lesson: I can write on demand. That was the missing piece. I used to think that I had to be punched by inspiration, only able to write if I was hunched over the keyboard with a fat lip. I thought I had to have something to actually write about. I don’t. I can make any moment write-worthy. I just have to put experiences into a kaleidoscope and then keep rearranging the pixels until the right pieces come into focus in a new frame. I have been wrestling with writing this piece all week, but it was not coming together—everything I came up with felt forced and fuzzy. Then I thought about the pork chop story while lying in bed at four a.m. I made a note in my phone and then got up this morning and the rest fell into place like a flight board that suddenly changes from delayed to now boarding. I just needed REAL pork chops.

The end.

Maybe this is right the place for a fucking poem? I wrote this on my phone in a gas station parking lot.

I am a dress code violator.
A head held high while the world is hunched in prayer.
A kick to your neat pile of leaves.
A laugh that echoes off solemn mountains.
You think this is funny?

The rules don’t apply to me.
Ask for permission later
or never.
Say Bullshit loud in quiet rooms.
Jump. Say “I will.”

Suffocate fear with words. Write.
Then write more. Be a rebel.
Make the world my metaphoric bitch.
Take what I need.
Tell no lies.

 close up

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