It started in my freshman composition class. “It” being love, a crush, a longing for something more, although what that more was I couldn’t say. I only knew that after devouring the assigned essays and short stories, I was hungry for more and that I, a notoriously lazy high school student, now stayed up late feverishly revising my essays. I wanted to. The way we want to do things—even difficult things—when we’re in love. Two years later, at age 20, I dared to speak these words in a hushed whisper: I want to be a writer.
I think we know stuff before we know it. Speaking those words made me afraid because some part of me knew that becoming this person called “writer” would require more from me than I was ready to give. I deep down knew that in order to claim the title of “writer,” I’d have to relinquish that which I believed I needed to survive. And, that type of handover just doesn’t happen without a good long fight.
Every occupation requires a fairly obvious set of specific skills—attorneys must be able to read stuff and argue effectively, teachers have to explain stuff clearly, and every occupation presents a less obvious emotional requirement. While we may be drawn to a profession because we’re decent at arguing or explaining, we might quiver at the thought of confrontation or short circuit anytime someone tests our patience. And yet, so often we’re magnetized by the challenge of doing what we are sure we cannot.
While the skills of writing—organizing ideas, finding the right word—might have been fun and sometimes even easy for me, the emotional requirement of the job included a willingness to write the truth no matter what the cost—specifically to surrender the need to be loved by everyone all the time. The writers I loved at 18, 28, 38 and 48 are feisty. They’ve added the word Ms. to our vocabulary (Steinem), written with stunning vulnerability about heartbreak (Ephron), and called out brutal injustice without flinching (Baldwin). They are willing, as Terry Tempest Williams once said, to live in a border tribe of their own, if that’s the price speaking out exacts.
At 18, I was not willing to pay that price. At 18, I could wrap myself in a flaming flag of denial and not even cop to the idea that it might be warm in the room.
At 28, I was not willing still, but I was closer. I was in therapy, taking forever to figure out that I had hitched my survival to the idea that I had to be good; and that if I weren’t good, which meant not speaking out, I’d be banished. The thought was not without basis—these fears rarely are—but the point was that it no longer served me. In fact, my “goodness” stood directly between me and what I wanted: to be a person bold enough to speak her mind, and to speak it on the page for the world to see.
At 38, I was nearly willing. At 37, I’d sat in a café across the street from my daughters’ preschool, exhausted from parenting, a mismatched marriage, and the labor of trying to be nice and good when I felt angry and bad; and I wrote some honest sentences about the family I grew up in, about my parents’ alcoholism (obliquely), about my own teeth-grinding resentment (not obliquely). From underneath those sentences, an essay bloomed, an essay in which I began to tell the truth about my life and my family and my anger. That essay got away from me and into a magazine where other people read it and responded to it. And, once I’d done that once, I was almost prepared to do it again—as long as I could stay within swimming distance of approval.
At 42, my marriage ended in the time it took to roast a chicken. In the months that followed, I stopped volunteering at the school. I stopped keeping track of papers and appointments. I gave up on social reciprocity. I smoked pilfered cigarettes and drank brandy on the back porch after the kids went to bed. I fell in love and lust even though everyone thought I should wait. In short, I was bad.
At 43, I wrote an essay about that chicken, about my husband’s mistakes and my own subsequent free fall from “middle-class grace,” and one Sunday, that essay was published in the New York Times. That day was a changing day; it was a line in the sand. Once I crossed it, I could no longer cling to the safety of others thinking I was nice. I wasn’t nice.
But I was willing.
It’s been said that the character of Juliet is an impossible role; by the time an actor is old enough to possess the wisdom to play Juliet, she no longer can pass for the age of thirteen that Shakespeare assigned to Juliet.
I was too young to play the role of the bold young writer at 18 or 28.
At 51, I’m nearly ready.
Theo Pauline Nestor is the host of the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, an inspiring weekend of writing and community building in the Washington’s Cascade Mountains. The keynote speaker, Cheryl Strayed, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Wild, will speak on memoir’s “Big Deep Things.” Suzanne Finnamore, Candace Walsh, Ariel Gore, E.J Levy and Theo Pauline Nestor will teach ten classes on various aspects of memoir writing.
Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown) and the forthcoming memoir The Sky Is Blue: A Writer’s Story of Finding her Voice and a Guide to How You Can Find Your Own (Simon & Schuster).
Follow her on Twitter @theopnestor.