I was the only first-grader to use plunge in my response to Ms. Hill-Rounds' prompt: Write a story about a time you learned how to do something. I could swim almost as soon as I could walk – my dad says I should have been born a fish – but I wasn't comfortable until I was in the water, so the summer my younger sister was old enough for swimming lessons, my mom took the opportunity to sign me up for diving lessons. My story for Ms. Hill-Rounds was five pages of fear and trembling and running away at the last second, and a paragraph of finally plunging heels first off the high dive into 12 feet of rec-center-pool water. Ms. Hill-Rounds gave me high praise for 'being a writer' but it would be another two decades before I'd be able to commit to jumping all the way in.
Since age four, I had feared I was meant to be a writer. Inchoate as they were, I knew I had things to say about trees and walking to your friends' houses in the dusty light of after-dinner street games and how sad stray paper bags are. But that was just it – shouldn't I be doing something about those stray bags or the denuding of the planet of its trees? When I was three, I started having nightmares where the whole world would slowly become covered in steaming crude oil with all of us and all beings beside trapped underneath. If these weren't messages that I should spend my time somehow working toward environmental restoration or some other necessary endeavor, my parents' unspoken vocational expectations were, much more clearly.
Success looked like being a doctor or an engineer not because of the money or status attending those careers but because doctors and engineers help people. How could writing poems about talking flowers or stories about getting in fights with siblings help anyone?
But I didn't feel life's fire doing anything else: I felt compelled to keep writing, at least until I found "the real thing" I was going to do with my life. Something that would benefit people beyond myself, that would address, even in a small way, the mounting issues that made the future look wobbly and dark, if it existed at all. Environmental degradation. Homelessness. Poverty. I had to do something, something more than rhyme about the moon, much as that nourished me. I took novels and notebooks to baseball games we went to as a family, to sleepovers and birthday parties, on field trips, thinking I could hide my little hobby even as I hoped I would grow out of it.
I wrote poems in the back of history class, in the margins of spiral-bound notebooks meant for math practice and, as soon as I became proficient in Spanish, began writing poems in that language, too.
All while looking for my "real" calling, of course, the non-selfish, "actually useful" thing I could make my life about. I had not grown out of writing by the time I left for college, so I ran like a fugitive from it. There are starving kids in Africa and stories won't feed them. Children are sick in the slums of India and poetry is not penicillin. I tried nearly every major available at university; I even studied chemical engineering just long to tank my GPA. I volunteered with environmental clubs, demonstrated with activist organizations, took on leadership roles in sustainability groups and political causes. I took on saving the world for years; that I had less and less time for poetry I mistook as finally growing out of a childhood habit. I persisted for several years and eventually, I did feel fire here, too. That of burnout.
My soul sore from the vicious contortions I was asking it to do in the name of what ultimately amounted to fear, I had no energy left to do much beyond rest. During, but not because of my collapse, a friend sent me a link to a recording of the late David Foster Wallace's graduation speech to Kenyon College's class of 2005, This is Water. Pay attention, he urges us with a parable: an older fish swims by two younger fish and says, 'Morning boys, how's the water?' The two young fish look at each other and ask, "what's water?"
As it turns out, the answer to that question for me is writing. My moral dilemmas of spending the immense time it takes to get good at the feisty yet stubbornly shy craft of writing have not been resolved in the sense of dissolved. And I still have some pretty ragged fear about imminent and global catastrophe. But perhaps one way to contribute to light for others rather than feed the rampant (and even understandable) cynicism, fear and apathy is to find and dive into the genuine joy of one's work. It requires telling the truth to and about yourself and then breathing deep and plunging in.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
m.nicole.r.wildhood is a Colorado native who has been living in Seattle - and missing the sun - since 2006. She has been a saxophone player and registered scuba diver for over half her life. In addition to blogging at http://megan.thewildhoods.com/, she writes poetry, fiction and short nonfiction, which have appeared in The Atlantic, xoJane, The Atticus Review, and Five as well as anthologies like Clash of the Couples and magazines like The Sun, journals like Lodestone and Ballard: A Journal of Street Poetry and blogs like ditchpoetry.com and Café Aphra. She seeks to be an advocate for those experiencing mental and emotional suffering and celebrates the misfits, the non-conventional and the bold. She currently writes for Seattle's street newspaper Real Change and is at work on a novel, two chapbooks (one in Spanish) and two full-length poetry volumes.
Follow m.nicole.r.wildhood on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mnrwildhood
Categories: Guest Blog Posts