Inglourious Writers

Each of us has one of those “If only I had a buck for every time…” moments.  My regular one is a client or student saying, when we first meet, “I always wanted to write…”

These wistful words have been spoken by just about every kind of person you can imagine.  The housewife.  The high-powered executive.  The youth counsellor.  The NFPO manager.  The aerobics instructor.  People who might not have much in common on the surface, but digging a little deeper, as I ask them why they’re here, at a writing workshop or coaching session, it turns out quite a lot.  Not just this burning, unfulfilled desire, burning hotter than the hottest unrequited love, but the moments when they accepted someone else’s – usually a teacher’s, or a parent’s – pronouncement about it.

The man who, as a boy, was told he was stupid because he couldn’t spell “banana” with the requisite number of n’s.  The woman who, as a girl, heard her teacher tell her father that the most he could expect from her was a job at the greengrocer’s.

These clients’ stories are very common.  For so many of us, our early experience with family and education means that “I always wanted to write” is not so much indicative of how we feel now, but of how we felt when, one way or another, we were told we couldn’t.  Far worse, that we shouldn’t.

It’s upsetting.

Like people who are told they shouldn’t sing just because they can’t sing in tune, people who are told they shouldn’t write just because they have cruddy spelling or grammar are being silenced.  Because writing, like singing, is self-expression of the deepest order, silencing voice is quietly and efficiently silencing an essential part of that person’s self.

But whoever got it started, it’s not that person who kept it going.  People silence their own selves far more efficiently than anyone else ever could.

So what’s at stake here? While I may have my own Grammarian Schoolmarm moments, this is what I ask myself before I even think about speaking.  What’s at stake when you hand in your yearly report to the boss is not what’s at stake when you’re writing about Patch, the dog you had when you were six.  What’s at stake here is something Quentin Tarantino understands.

In this gem of an entry in Letters of Note we see something that, depending on how you’re bent, should either make you cringe or make you rejoice.

The winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay wrote a letter with handwriting and spelling that’s as good a biography as anything else on Tarantino you’ll ever read.  In this letter are both his childhood and his present self writ large (both literally and figuratively).

Smirk if you want.  Have your moment of superiority if you must.  (Heaven knows, if you’ve never won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, you may actually quite badly need it.)  And then think about the fact that Tarantino, at the height of his Hollywood hotness, could have had a secretary write the letter for him.  Compose it, even, if he didn’t feel like dictating.  But he thought it urgent and important enough to write it himself.  He was convinced that he had something worthwhile to say to this 13-year-old budding filmmaker, and that he was the best person to say it, in his own way, no matter how it may look to anyone else. The only thing that mattered was connecting and communicating with another real live human being on a meaningful level.

And this is what writing is all about.  As beautiful as the English language is, and as necessary as it is to nurture it, have you been using it as your muzzle?  Your excuse?  Because for all of you who have ever “wanted to write” the question isn’t whether you can, but whether you’re ready to connect and communicate meaningfully with the rest of the human race.  Whether you’re willing to put yourself out there and risk praise or ridicule (and each one is a weight to carry) because you believe you must, because you are the best person to say what needs to be said, in your own way.

If you think that’s an arrogant belief, you can always go back to concentrating on spelling and grammar, which has a way of making humble servants of us all.  Remembering, of course, that servants are almost always silent.  Safely, anonymously silent.

And if Tarantino’s belief makes perfect sense to you, you know what to do.  Rock on.  Here’s to the rest of us and our inglourious scrawl.