Jhumpa Lahiri, one of my favorite writers, has a gorgeous piece in the New Yorker Magazine: "Trading Stories: Notes from an Apprenticeship." In this short memoir, Lahiri describes her journey from book-loving child to Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and examines the mindset that turns some of us into writers despite every other intention.
I found "Trading Stories" of particular interest because, despite our vastly different family backgrounds, Lahiri and I have one thing in common: we were both children who wrote incessantly in youth...and who then stopped writing (for a time) in young adulthood, channelling our creativity into other areas instead. She writes:
"As I grew into adolescence and beyond, however, my writing shrank in what seemed to be an inverse proportion to my years. Though the compulsion to invent stories remained, self-doubt began to undermine it, so that I spent the second half of my childhood being gradually stripped of the one comfort I’d known, that formerly instinctive activity turning thorny to the touch. I convinced myself that creative writers were other people, not me, so that what I loved at seven became, by seventeen, the form of self-expression that most intimidated me. I preferred practicing music and performing in plays, learning the notes of a composition or memorizing the lines of a script..."
For me, too, the writing impulse was channeled into theater work, and I actually entered university intending to major in theater -- an intention so ill-suited to my nature that it seems little short of insane to me now. Fortunately it wasn't too long before I found my way back to my true vocation.
Lahiri explains her own detour away from her proper vocation with the following words:
"For much of my life, I wanted to be other people; here was the central dilemma, the reason, I believe, for my creative stasis. I was always falling short of people’s expectations: my immigrant parents’, my Indian relatives’, my American peers’, above all my own. The writer in me wanted to edit myself. If only there was a little more this, a little less that, depending on the circumstances: then the asterisk that accompanied me would be removed. My upbringing, an amalgam of two hemispheres, was heterodox and complicated; I wanted it to be conventional and contained. I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary, to look like other people, to behave as others did. To anticipate an alternate future, having sprung from a different past. This had been the lure of acting—the comfort of erasing my identity and adopting another. How could I want to be a writer, to articulate what was within me, when I did not wish to be myself?"
This too I can relate to. Born to an unwed teenage mother (at a time when the stigma from this was still great) and shunted between various relatives, all I wanted in adolescence was to be ordinary, from an ordinary family. The very things in my background that give me strength and compassion as an adult, both as a woman and as a writer, were the things things that mortified me in adolescence; and I was no more willing to "alchemize" them into prose than I was to strip in public.
"It was not in my nature to be an assertive person," Lahiri continues. "I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to re-conceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, 'Listen to me.'
"This was where I faltered. I preferred to listen rather than speak, to see instead of be seen. I was afraid of listening to myself, and of looking at my life."
I can't help but wonder how many other young writers have likewise faltered in making that step -- or, worse, have stopped in their tracks altogether. It takes courage to write, and to expose oneself. And to be oneself. But then, all art takes courage.
Stirred together with a teaspoon of talent, a tablespoon of craft (or maybe it's the other way around?), a heaping cup of plain hard work, and a pinch of luck.
Art above: Book sculptures by Norwegian installation artist Rune Guneriussen, whose whimsical light sculptures were featured in this previous post. In addition to Jhumpa Lahiri's essay, "Trading Stories," I also recommend Tea Obreht's short memoir "High-School Confidential," published in the same issue of The New Yorker. And the wonderful books of both authors.