Coming Out as a Writer: An Ongoing Journey

DISCLAIMER: Some names of teachers and mentors mentioned in this post have been changed to protect their privacy, and frankly, to cover my ass from being accused of slander. All friends’ names are real.

My name is Joe, and I’m coming out as a writer.

Books have been a part of my life since infancy. While I have had varying amounts of time to read for pleasure at different points, I’m always intoxicated by how well a story, fiction or nonfiction, can pull me into a world that I haven’t experienced. Film and television series can do this too, but I’m always astounded by the power of words to conjure images and characters and relatable experiences.

Joni Mitchell, one of my favorite musicians, once said that her seventh grade English teacher had seen her painting (her other primary means of artistic expression) and said to her “If you can paint with a brush, you can paint with words.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. I enjoy painting with both brushes and words, as well as musical instruments such as guitars and keyboards. But painting with words (which, if you haven’t figured out by now, is a euphemism for writing) will always feel special to me. Even now, writing this blog post feels electric. It gives me a feeling of power that nothing else can do. Not painting, competing, or even singing, as I thought was my calling for much of my life.

I don’t use the phrase “coming out” lightly. I’ve had to do this in the traditional sense, as a queer male. For those unfamiliar, this means someone attracted to women, men, and everything in between.  It’s an ongoing process. I have no fear doing it here, because those who don’t approve mean less than a pile of shit to me. (Sorry, lost a bit of reverence there). Still, I’m twenty-two; I’ll meet new people for whom it will be relevant to know this throughout my entire life. This phrase carries an implication that one is hiding an aspect of one’s identity, traditionally sexual orientation, but is now used culturally for everything from a transgender identity to the fan of a perhaps embarrassing TV show. Today, I come out as a writer. Whether I read a blog post, essay, or novel– all of which I plan to draft before the end of 2015– I will identify myself as a writer. I wrote plenty before, fictional and nonfictional; the bulk of my writing as a high school and college student was comprised of sociological essays, literary analyses, or album reviews for my college radio station. The occasional short story or poem would come up here and there, in terms of traditional literary forms, and I’ve been writing songs since the age of ten. However, not until very recently, in the midst of conversations with friends, family, former professors, teachers, and even my therapist, did I begin to truly own the identity of writer.

I think I began to really consider that I could do this, however vaguely, for the first time when I was fifteen, in the tenth grade. Ironically, this may have been my most emotionally stressful year, not only of high school, but perhaps my life. I was experiencing early onset symptoms of depression, all of the classic ones: erratic sleep schedules where long spurts of insomnia punctuated long periods of excessive sleep. I had a lack of appetite. I was experiencing what some psychologists call depersonalization; that is, feeling out of touch with myself or lost.I was feeling that my body, mind and soul, were disconnected. I had few friends (shoutout to Ben, Taylor and Leanna), many acquaintances, and I rarely kept in touch with even my closest three. I was withdrawing from my parents, and at the time, they didn’t seem aware of, or perhaps weren’t interested, in what was going on. My grades  were slipping. I told you, everything was hitting me at once, and at this time I wasn’t receiving therapy or other professional help. But, in this seemingly bleak period, I remember a consistent pattern: I was earning A’s on my English papers.  Most of these were literary analyses, but some were personal and creative pieces as well. On one piece, my teacher, who I’ll call Ms. Sunshine, wrote in the margin: “You have a strong writer’s voice.” That’s come back to me multiple times in my life, but only recently have I realized that she may well have had a moment of clairvoyance in writing that comment. It was also the first inkling that maybe writing could give me a key out of this emotionally barren environment I was building in my personal life.

My emotional state continued to yo-yo during the summer between tenth and eleventh grade. Stupidly, I didn’t ask for therapy; perhaps I thought it was useless since I had already lost so much hope, or that my parents couldn’t afford it in our tenuous financial situation. However, junior year started strongly, and due to my excellence in ninth and tenth grade honors English, I decided to take the challenge of entering the advanced eleventh grade course: AP English Language and Composition. For all levels, eleventh grade English was divided into two semesters with different teachers. Honors and basic students generally had a clearly defined literature and composition course, but our divide was more nuanced: one semester covered narrative nonfiction, argumentation, and debate, while the other was drama focused. This would prove over the course of the year to be a mixed blessing, which I didn’t know at the time; I just wanted a challenge. The two semesters proved to be drastically different experiences for me. The first semester was narrative nonfiction, and I excelled and my confidence as writer (and reader) continued on an upward trajectory built on last year’s foundation. The drama semester, to put it mildly, provided an eponymous experience: drama. I liked the plays. We were reading ancient Greek Sophocles and Shakespeare–whose Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar I’d loved and comprehended well in ninth and tenth respectively, and I enjoyed this year’s Macbeth too. However, for some reason, I wasn’t grasping what was expected of me to glean from the plays, as evidenced by failing reading quizzes. I wasn’t sure if my ADD had been on overdrive, or the untreated depression was rearing its ugly head, but I barely passed third quarter (first half of drama semester) with a D. The last quarter was in the B range. Better, but  the grades weren’t nearly as emotionally scarring as the comments on my writing. My teacher, who I’ll call Mrs. Redpen (see what I did there?) was a devil with her blood red ink. She deflated the past year and a half of confidence in my writing with every marginal comment and unsatisfactory grade.  Did I think about being a writer for a living? According to Mrs. Redpen, I couldn’t even comprehend basic plot points.

I would learn later, in taking personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in college (learn about MBTI here), that I just perceive information as a whole on first registration, and I have to look harder to get the individual details. In Myers-Briggs terms, I’m a “P” for perception, while “J’s,” for judging, get the individual details down quickly. “S” people, short for sensing, will describe things they see or remember with specific details also. I got screwed their too; I’m an “N” for intuition (I guess they like consonants).  With my previous high school teachers, this didn’t matter when it came to my final writing assignments; I synthesized information in a way that conveyed strong writing. For Mrs. Redpen, the lack of specificity and detail in plot was an example of failure. Literally. I failed a couple of essays for the first time in my life. And I was in a fucking nationally recognized official Advanced Placement English course. This contradiction made me feel utterly destroyed. My merely average three on the AP exam’s five point scale was a nail in the coffin. Forget writing bringing me out of depression: Redpen–who I’d bet money is and “S” and “J” on the MBTI–and the graders of the AP exam helped to associate writing with deeper depression. I don’t think I even wrote many songs after junior year was over in the summer of 2009. I later learned that my classmate and close friend, Leanna, had a similar experience with Redpen, and Redpen even accused her of plagiarism.

Even though I had finished Redpen’s course and didn’t have to deal with her again–twelfth grade AP English Literature and Composition had different teachers certified for it–my bad luck with English class didn’t end there. My senior English class, like junior year’s, ,was divided into two semesters: Classics and Modern Comparative Literature. This time, the harder semester came first: Classics. Our tantalizing selection of works written by dead people started in the summer with Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a required read for all students entering AP Lit, as we called it for short. It was a nice character arc, but not my cup of tea. The semester’s selection’s included Beowulf, Jane Austen’s Pride  and Prejudice, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, and the obligatory work of Shakespeare; this year, it was Hamlet. Again, I enjoyed these works. However, my unknown-to-me-yet perception retention style (the “P” again) caused me to do less than stellar on oral reading quizzes, and they comprised an inordinate weight to our grade. The nail in the coffin this year, however, was me shooting myself in the foot.

Our culminating project for Classics–and really, our longest writing assignment all year with the greatest magnitude–was a research paper–eight to ten pages in length–where we had to read contemporary works and judge whether or not they had the qualities of a classic as defined by various elements of story structure and theme we’d reviewed throughout the semester. I chose Life of Pi by Yann Martel. (Note to self: this needs a reread). I started off enjoying the book immensely. However, I came down with the illness that plagued many in 2009: H1N1, commonly known as swine flu. I was absent from school for two weeks, right before Christmas/winter break. I got no reading done. Now, a sensible person would ask for their teacher’s assistance, or perhaps a gracious extension. This never occurred to me. I thought I would either catch up on the reading, or bullshit my way through it. The later option ended up winning. I was up until 4AM before the deadline writing, and remember saying to myself, “I do not give a fuck about this paper anymore.” It showed. Since I didn’t outright plagiarize, my teacher, who I’ll call Mrs. Jones, didn’t fail or report me for the course. She did, however, give me a 50% failing grade on our major term paper. I ended AP Classics with a C- and D, for each of its respective quarters.

In retrospect, I cared deeply about writing still, which is why the ramifications of my error in judgment were completely justified and the guilt killed me for a while. The lesson from this was that I wasn’t a shitty writer or even a shitty reader, as Redpen’s and Jones’ reading quizzes seemed to indicate. I just needed to ask for help in difficult situations rather than wing it. As I’ve recently learned, in the writing community, people fall in one of two categories as writers: Plotters–planners–and Pantsers, stemming from the expression “flying by the seat of your pants.” I’d been a hardcore Pantser, and it cost me.

For my Modern Comparative Literature half of AP Lit, I was stoked. I had Mr. Jim Zervanos. I use his real name, because Jim is a friend of mine, as well as a published short story writer and novelist (Check his site out here). I had first met Mr. Z, as I called him then, as a freshman when I stayed after school with my friend Sarah as a staff editor for my high school’s literary magazine, the Gryphon, of which Mr. Z was and still is the faculty adviser. As he taught upperclassmen commonly, I didn’t have a chance to take a course with him until now, my final semester of high school. In retrospect, I wish I took his creative writing course too, but I thought AP Chemistry was a good idea (LOL). In Modern Comparative Lit (MCL herein), we only read one novel and one novella: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and J.D. Salinger’s  Franny and Zooey respectively. The rest of our curriculum were essays and short stories by authors as varied as Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Michael Cunningham, John Updike, and Jeffrey Eugenides. I not only learned to love the art of the short story (and short form writing in general), but I was able to synthesize multiple works in assessment, a strength of mine. MCL culminated in two creative projects: an individually written short story and a group short film. This was the first time I had attempted a creative prose piece in at least two years. I churned out a ten-page, double spaced story (probably around 2,000 words) about an alcoholic, drug addicted rock star who tragically loses everything due to addiction (I know, cliché city). I just wanted to have fun and set something in Los Angeles, and I wanted to the plot to keep moving. Moving, in my story, translated to plot holes everywhere and a total sense of disbelief to the reader. Mr. Z told me this in no uncertain terms, while also encouraging revisions, telling me that (paraphrased) any plot is possible if your characters have reason to do things. I never revised or extended my story to give backstories for plot events, but I wish I did. Even at this stage, under Jim Zervanos’s supervision, a published author, I still didn’t think I had the gift of a creative writer.

This is why, when I entered college–even though I felt compelled to try journalism or something to do with professional writing throughout– I danced around it. I started as Spanish major, experimented with communication studies, philosophy, even business, before settling on Sociology as a major with minors in Spanish and Women’s and Gender Studies for my B.A. I wouldn’t trade this degree for the world, as it’s how I became to identify as a queer male feminist and look at our world as product of social interaction both on macro and micro levels. My strength as a writer (though an analytical one, not a creative one), was reaffirmed by multiple close mentors, including my adviser, Dr. Jackie Zalewski, currently working on her first book about the sociological impacts of outsourcing work, Dr. Lisa Ruchti, a gender specialist who has published one book (available here) and is proposing the next, and arguably my strongest cheerleader as a writer, Dr. Julie Wiest (check out her site), a former journalist and copy editor turned cultural sociologist who’d authored two books (one journalistic, one academic) and is now working on her third book, a memoir (read about it here). However, an experience writing my own senior thesis and being Dr. Wiest’s lead research assistant on an article simultaneously made me realize that academic writing wasn’t my wheelhouse. I graduated last year, not knowing what I wanted. I found master’s programs toward the end of college in writing studies, creative writing, and other related areas, but instead went the safe route, applying to master’s programs in higher education administration, in which I have paraprofessional experience (i.e. college jobs). I was accepted to one, and I introduced this blog months ago speaking as a future professional in higher education.

I’m writing this post to let you all know that this plan is not likely anymore. I’ve reflected over my year out of college, and have finally owned it: I’m a writer. While I have still not firmly decided to forego my accepted master’s program (one has to pay the bills somehow), I’m going to be a published writer. I want nothing more. Even though I have a B.A. in sociology, not English. Even though I’m accepted into a master’s program. Even though I went through a painful emotional roller coaster as a writer in high school. Even though I’m a copyrighted and recorded singer-songwriter and want to continue music as well. I want nothing more to be published and share my work with a wider audience. It truly does being me out of depression, for which I am now, thankfully, receiving treatment. I own it now.

I am a writer.

So that brings us to what’s coming next. I have ideas for essays that burn with passion inside of me to get out. An edit of this post may well get submitted for publication. I will also be participating in Camp NaNoWriMo in November 2015, a month long experiment/challenge/contest to draft a 50,000 word novel between November 1 and November 30. Short story ideas and perhaps a long-form memoir are also in the works. All updates, of course, will be posted to this blog.

My name is Joe, and I am a writer. I hope you enjoy and join me on my ongoing, coming out journey.

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