Once upon a time, there was a boy. We hung out all the time, talked endlessly and everyone expected us to date and yet…we didn’t. Not that there wasn’t tension; there was, we just never broke the surface of it. Looking back I think we did have Feelings, but maybe not enough to sustain a Relationship or maybe the wrong kind and neither of us wanted to put the other in the position of saying so? I don’t know. Regardless, one night I was over at his place and he told me, point blank, to ask a question about him. Something I wanted to know. I couldn’t think of anything. I told him I was naturally an incurious person, and he said that I had better go. I’m going, I replied. I’m going.
I left his house feeling embarrassed and somehow less-than because of my in-curious-ness. It’s something I continued to feel bad about, whenever I thought about it. I’ve never been an insatiably curious person. I wasn’t the kid who pestered adults, asking, “But WHY?” ad nauseum. I generally accepted things if they made sense and ignored them if they didn’t. The things I researched at the library were things of practical interest to me. I read about pigs because I dissected one in Saturday biology class. I read about fish because I wanted an aquarium. I read about interior design because my mom gave me permission to redo my bedroom however I saw fit. I was a smart kid, straight-A student and everything, but I wasn’t driven by the kind of sparkling, precocious sense of wonder that people always paint smart kids with. I didn’t see myself in the clever, questioning protagonists of children’s chapter books. I was more like Chucky from Rugrats: accepting and afraid.
This boy, though, was the first person to force me to acknowledge this trait, and the first to make me feel inferior because of it. He wouldn’t be the last. As I continued on in college, I became an English major and took creative writing courses. In those classes, we were encouraged to take inspiration from the world around us. Ask questions that would lead to stories. Why does the man at the bus stop look so sad every day? Where is he going that fills him with such melancholy? What if he sprouted wings and could fly to his destination? What if he’s in the witness protection program? What if he has amnesia? What if, what if, what if. It was at this point, confronted with everyone else’s creativity and curiosity, that I began to question myself as a writer. Was I cut out for this? Do all writers have to have a thousand questions on their tongues?
I stumbled through the rest of my undergrad career, and then I got sick. My mental illness kicked into high gear and became the focus of my writing. I became a sort of confessional poet, shaping the dysfunction and disorder in my life into verse. I got good responses to my work and even published some. But then I left my abusive husband and started teaching and my “creativity” vanished. I no longer had anything to write about if I couldn’t draw from the poisoned well of my own life. I read wildly imaginative novels and stories, provocative plays and poems. I read articles about writers doing years of research to write historical novels, non-fiction writers interviewing hundreds of subjects for their own topical books. And I thought to myself, There is no way I can do any of that. I don’t have any questions.
As I approach my MFA with only the barest ghost of a novel idea, I suspect that my incuriosity has a lot to do with my massive writer’s block. If writerly texts and writers on Twitter are to be believed, the world is just bursting with the seeds of stories and novels. One need only step through one’s front door to be practically assailed with possibilities for writing. The trees? Ents! Your neighbors? CIA operatives! The weather? Controlled by aliens. Or whatever. The Writer, these sources assure me, sees with different eyes. But I don’t. The best stories I’ve written have been written to prompts, not Inspiration. And most of my non-fiction (take this blog, for example) is taken from my own life and thoughts, not exhaustive research.
So one thing I hope to develop over the course of my degree is this questioning engine writers are supposed to have. I want to train myself to stop taking the world at face value and to turn it over in my hands, to ask questions and to wonder about possibilities beyond what physically exists. This is a real challenge for someone who didn’t even do imaginative play as a child. (I dressed my Barbies and brushed my ponies’ hair, but I rarely came up with scenarios for them or acted out anything–they were just toys, not actors in a fantastic play.) But I feel like my writing has progressed as far as it can without imagination. I’ve already written all the gory, depressing details of my inner life and become bored with them. I need to look outward, rather than inward, if I’m going to tell good stories, and that’s a scary prospect for me!
My husband sometimes asks me to tell him a story, and to be honest, I dread that request. I find it impossible to draw a beginning, middle and ending from thin air. And perhaps it IS impossible. Most good storytellers don’t just draw from nothing. They draw from observation, from curious questioning, from postulating. I want to be able to remember the man at the bus stop and to spin a story about him. I want to be able to look at a situation from the news and build a world around it. My worst fear is that that’s not a skill you can learn, that it’s somehow innate to Real Writers. That some people just have it and other people don’t.
My second-worst fear is that this is something I was supposed to develop BEFORE joining the MFA. That the program is going to be all about refining my writing, not finding it. Last time I started this program, everyone was a self-described Writer. Most of the people in my class had at least four works in progress, some had stacks of completed novels. They talked about seeing stories everywhere they went. I felt like such an outsider, and I’m dreading feeling that way again this term. Does anyone do the MFA to become a Writer? Or does everyone already believe themselves to be one upon arrival? Can you develop a writer’s mind by studying the craft, or is it something you’re just born with and learn to refine?
There is one thing that gives me hope here. When I was younger, I played the viola. I was pretty good, but I hated practicing. (The reasons for that are for another post.) I did the bare minimum and skated by on natural talent. There was another violist at my school, Lily. Lily was extremely talented and easily won first chair over me. I was insanely jealous of her skill and raged at how unfair it was that she should be gifted with such talent and I got second-best. But then some important information came to light. First, Lily had a much better private teacher than I did. My teacher focused on musicianship and completely ignored technique, seriously hobbling me as I progressed. When I switched over to Lily’s teacher in high school, she was appalled at my graceless left hand and ignorance of basic music theory. Secondly, Lily practiced. A lot. Lily’s fingers were calloused and strong from the amount of time she put in practicing. Hours upon hours, where I was lucky to put in fifteen minutes in a day. What I had taken for natural ability was actually the result of painstaking work. Lily was better than me because she worked harder.
Remembering Lily’s hard work makes me more optimistic for the MFA. I may not be a natural writer or curiously inclined, but maybe if I really apply myself to the process, I can develop writerly instincts or a writerly mind. Or maybe I’ll find ways to concoct stories with the brain I already have, figuring out my own kinds of strengths. Either way, I hope that hard work in this program will make me a better writer and, consequently, a better teacher.