I let some of my co-workers know that I had a short story published recently. One of them turned to me and said, “I didn’t know you were a writer!” I just smiled and thanked her for her support. In my head, I replied “What do you think I do in my office all day, honey?”
Writing is my profession. Since the 1990’s I’ve been paid a generally adequate salary to write things for other people: Marketing copy, company newsletters, white papers, website content, sales presentations and so on. I’ve written technical manuals and user guides and executive speeches. For the past 5 years I’ve been writing grant proposals to support the children’s health and nutrition programs at the nonprofit I work for.
Grants are a bitch to write. Anyone who tells you it’s easy is trying to sell you something. They’re even harder to get accepted. They are made of deadlines and research and ambiguous specifications. Grants are also a whole lot of trying to convince someone that your triangular peg will fit into a hexagonal hole. I’ve often joked, “If you think grant writing isn’t creative writing…?” because everyone knows the rest.
Yes, I am a professional writer. I’m not a professional author of fiction.
I’ve always been a voracious reader. According to my aunt I could read simple words at age 3. I have no memories of not being able to read. My mother was a single parent struggling to finish her degree. My babysitter was the children’s section of whatever university or public library she studied in. She would just drop me off and leave me there for hours. It’s a well-known fact that reading is the gateway drug to writing. Call me a junkie.
When I was older, I became a latchkey kid. I had other latchkey friends in the student-subsidy apartments where we lived, but for the most part, I stayed alone in our apartment and read everything my mother owned cover to cover. Books, textbooks, magazines–if it had words in it, I read it. (Let’s not go into my reading Fear of Flying at age 9. Erica Jong woke something exciting in my brain, but it was Huxley and Plath who warped me with Brave New World and The Bell Jar.)
In one of those magazines on the coffee table, I found a little column in the back announcing a call for submissions of children’s poetry. Being 8 years old, I didn’t understand that it was poetry for children, not by them. I wrote a poem about what it felt like to ride a horse at a full run down a country road. I begged my mother to “help” me type it. She refused. I asked my friend’s mother to type it and she indulged me. I mailed it in despite my mother’s protests that I was “being silly” and dire warnings that I shouldn’t get my hopes up.
Months later, a letter arrived addressed to me. My poem had been accepted. I was paid $5 and 3 copies of the brightly-colored illustrated chapbook. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I’d proven my mother wrong. We mailed copies to each of my grandparents, and I kept one. I wish I still had it, but it was lost somewhere along the way.
I write for myself. I sometimes write short stories, sometimes poetry. I submit them to publications I read and admire, and every now and then, I get published. I’m happy with that. I write about supernatural horror because it distracts me from the mundane horrors of poverty that I confront every day.
I don’t plan on writing a novel anytime soon. I don’t aspire to be famous and I’m never going to earn a living writing fiction. I create because I have to. I’ve been making art, dancing, sewing, singing, playing instruments and banging on drums for my whole life. Words, language, art, music and movement is the way I gather up the strength to live. Whatever word you use to describe that strength, whether it be puha, qi, prana or mana, it’s what I receive when I perform, or write, or sit alone in my house with a drum and my voice. When that reception is a letter that begins, “We are pleased to fund your project…” or “We are pleased to accept your submission…” The rush is incredible.