As students head back to school over the coming weeks, I feel drawn to share a slightly revised version of the Foreword my friend Darby Lyons invited me to write this spring for Wyoming High School’s literary journal, Icarus. Praise be to high school and college creative writing teachers who make such writing communities possible.
According to my parents, I wrote my first book of poems when I was five or six. I could write the alphabet, but not yet form words, so it became a community effort—me saying my poems for my mother to spell, but not to write; the words on the page must be from my own hand. I don’t remember this, but the story itself—as well as the story of reading my first word (ALL, on the detergent box)—has been retold so many times it feels as real to me as memory. As real as Meg saving Charles Wallace from the nefarious IT (A Wrinkle in Time); as real as the kitchen sink where Cassandra perched to write her journal entries (I Capture the Castle); as real as the stinging nettles Elise sewed into seven capes to return her seven brothers to their princely forms (The Wild Swans). I was, to quote my friend and mentor, the poet George Ella Lyon, a “wordful child.” But though I inhaled entire sections of multiple libraries during my elementary school years, I did not find my true life with words until junior high.
I began writing poems at age 12 for the reason that so many do—because there was no other way to say what must be said. I often ask other artists—writers, painters, musicians—when they first began to make art, and have found that these early adolescent years usually mark the beginning. Everything is in flux—our interior lives, our relationship to the world around us. Without art we might burst into flame. In my case, no one I knew wrote, and certainly no one wrote poetry. My father was a voracious reader; poetry, he said, was the only literature he did not enjoy. My mother told me that she had written in sixth grade but stopped with a teacher’s criticism. There was no creative writing class in my small school; the only poem I remember being asked to read was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” (I thought maybe it was about Santa Claus!)
I was, however, thoroughly immersed in the singer/songwriters of my day; the songs of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Janis Ian were my path into poetry. I wrote, I thought, in secret, but my father with his nose for words discovered my vocation and became my first reader. (It turned out the only poems he liked were mine!) He always pointed to what shined in my poems, and did not comment on their failings. His gentle direction provided encouragement and a year or so later I met my first poet, M. Joe Eaton, part of Kentucky’s poet in the schools program, and I learned that what I was doing was making metaphors, and that not all poems needed to rhyme. My first publication was as a result of a Scholastic Magazine prize, and in high school I published a few poems in regional journals alongside adult authors. But I did not have a true community around my writing until I went to college where I found a group of peers and mentors who encouraged each other.
So whether you are encountering a creative writing class in high school or college, how lucky you are to have this community now of other writers who can inspire you, who can set the bar just a little higher, who can make you feel, if not less crazy, at least crazy in good company. To have teachers who take your writing seriously and connect you with the elders of your tribe—other authors who, like you, believe in the necessity of speaking truth, whether it be through poetry, fiction or essays. The necessity of saying what can be said in no other way but through your own written words.
Remember that first book of poems I wrote at five or six? It was lost forever in one of my family’s many moves. It doesn’t matter. The writing of those poems became “story” and that story of the girl who wrote them became the story of the woman who writes.
Maybe you will stop writing after the class ends. Many do. I stopped soon after college, and did not begin again until my early thirties. Maybe it was due to a lack of community; certainly the first thing I did when I let myself acknowledge the pull to the page was to find a writing community. To find my tribe.
I want to say to you, don’t stop. Search out those people in school and in the wider world who see more clearly with pens in their hands, or keyboards beneath their fingers. We are out there and easier than ever to find through the many online and in-person writing groups, as well as a plethora of open mic readings. But even if the only time in your life you call yourself “writer” is now, you are still lucky, because now is when you need it most. The poems and stories you write are a part of you that outlive your years in school. Writing them are now included in your “story,” the story of becoming who you are.