The writing life chose me
Updated: May 16, 2022
I’ve always been a writer. When I was a kid, I was the one who wrote a whole story when the assignment was just to write a few sentences. I was the one in college who edited everybody else’s papers. My peers who are now accountants and doctors were once calling on me at 2 a.m. in the dorm the night before their papers were due. Although math and science and history and Spanish classes could be a thorn in my side, my English classes were my safe space. It’s where I felt most at home, most in control, most likely to succeed. That doesn’t mean I’m the best there ever was, it just means it’s in my bones. I could do it all day.
The reason I’m a writer is probably that I came from a family of writers. My parents were word people, generally. My mom would post sticky notes on the wall with vocabulary words to help us study for the SATs. My favorite of those words remains “avuncular,” which means “like an uncle.” I’m so tickled and grateful that we have a word for that! My family played Scrabble the way other families watch football or, I don’t know, what do other families do with their time? Even after I grew up, moved away and became a professional writer, my mom continued to send me corrections on my published work. “I liked your article, honey, but you should put the word ‘only’ closer to the word it modifies.” (Nobody cares about that, Mom.)
My dad was a CPA, but he was a CPA who loved to write. He wrote funny songs for the co-workers at his firm and comedic columns about taxes, if you can imagine such a thing. His colleagues enjoyed his sense of humor and his literary take on a decidedly non-literary field. He wrote a book, a memoir, a ballad for my mom’s 50th birthday party and a wonderful father-of-the-bride toast for my wedding. My mom’s biggest writing projects are emails that are 800 times longer than they need to be. Once, she rambled so long on a hand-written card that she asked for my help to “get out of this sentence.” Not a jail sentence, just an over-wrought sentence on a thank-you note.
My sister and I both became writers. For me, it was journalism and related fields. For my sister, it’s been comedy. She is a standup comic and writes all her own material. She’s hilarious. You can look her up: Erica Rhodes. I won’t tell you any of her jokes here. You can buy her album, “Sad Lemon.”
When I worked on “The Writer’s Almanac,” the daily radio show broadcast on NPR and hosted by Garrison Keillor, I had to research famous writers. Each day, the program featured writers who had been born on that same day in history. Mary Oliver was born Sept. 10. James Baldwin, Aug. 2.
By delving into the biographies of poets, authors, essayists and artists, I learned that there is no one way to live the writer’s life. Some are alcoholic drug addicted insomniacs doing all their work in the middle of the night, and others arise every day at 5 a.m., drink a cup of black tea, dress themselves in a suit and tie and sit at their typewriter until they hit a prescribed number of words. You can write as a recluse or as a party animal. You can churn out a book a year or write one famous novel and never write again. Your sentences can be long, descriptive, rambling, like James Joyce, or they can be short and choppy, like Ernest Hemingway. You can write with lots of metaphor and allusion, or you can tackle your subject head-on, with no frills. You can write fiction or nonfiction or something in between.
No two writers are the same. The one uniting factor is they saw fit to put words on a page.