Do you remember a passion that you used to have as a kid? A passion that you don’t pursue any more?
My passion derailment was in 1980. Sixth grade, the Hancock School. We spent our recesses playing tetherball. I still remember when a kid named Jake gave me a bloody nose with his enthusiastic serve.
One day that year, our teacher Mr. Jubett asked us to write a poem about the theme of war. I was very excited about this task—even then, I was overcome with a literary sickness. I had already written dozens of poems on napkins and scrap paper, and I had a thinking rock in the backyard where I sat to spawn poetic thoughts. By then, I had already created a new school newspaper for an extended learning project. I interviewed local author Elizabeth Yates for a Girl Scout badge.
So I very enthusiastically penned my poem about war, and I thought it was brilliant. It had soldiers in it, and lots of death, and it somehow brought in a thunderous grey sky and clouds, using very penetrating language.
I climbed on the school bus the day the poem was due, and sat with my friend Rebecca. We pulled out our wrinkled binder papers and shared our penciled words. I read mine, and she smiled and nodded encouragingly. But then she read hers. Her poem used a chessboard as a metaphor for war, and focused on the historical struggle between white people and people of color.
It was stunning. In fact, her poem was much more profound, so much more sophisticated than mine. So I gave up writing for 20 years.
I know, that’s what you’re thinking. Just a stupid poem on a creaky school bus changed your life path?
Sure, there was a lot of early encouragement that writing was good for me. I had already had a poem published in Children’s Digest magazine. (All I remember about this masterpiece are the following lines: “What will I have, a Snickers bar or a Milky Way? I have a little hungry in my tummy—but I’m getting so fat it really isn’t funny!”)
But even with that early, masterful slant rhyme, even though I could get As in English with my eyes closed, somehow, I gave it up. Writing wasn’t very practical, and it was so, so hard. It was emotional, it was exhausting, it was exposing, and the editing was never-ending.
Fortunately, the long, circuitous path of life brought me back to this fun at some point along the way. In my 30s, I even went back to school to get an MFA. So although I don’t make a living writing, I now know that I have to write in order to live.
Whenever I meet a young person who says, “I really would love to be a sculptor, but my parents tell me I should be an accountant,” I pull them aside and try to knock some sense into them before it’s too late. I tell them that sure, there’s a reason that passion comes from a Latin root that means “to suffer.” But can they imagine their lives without doing what they love?
I now admit it—I heart writing. It’s remarkable that that tetherball didn’t knock any sense into me sooner.