I seek out tips on how to craft a compelling character in Writer’s Digest. I read YA novels to garner new talking points for my latest blog entry. And I still (still!) delve into David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, finding grief and irascible humor in the lives of his Ennet House residents, his Quebecois wheelchair assassins – and our unerringly self-destructive American fixation on entertainment. All so that I can write my own fiction in the tiny spans of free time I have between semesters of graduate school. But why do I write?
I didn’t always have a sense of my own writing identity. I’m a guy of memory, though, and I can trace where my love of prose comes from as easily as some people trace their path on a map. I’d say it started with Ms. Cadell, my second grade reading teacher. In vague shapes and hues, I remember the kindness with which she lifted me up. Her compassion, her love for telling parables and sketching stories like 3-D prints – they were all stepping stones, and I took them because I was perfectly naive and willing to learn. And I ventured into storytelling with a practically innate level of empathy and hope for the human condition.
In sixth grade, it was Ms. Johnson who inspired me to read and take on bigger themes. I found what a dystopian world looked and felt like in The Giver. I scaled the wonders of fantasy and magic with Terry Brook’s The Sword of Shannara, even if it (and my reading level) didn’t quite match up to Tolkien’s works. And , maybe most importantly, I found the courage to stand up against the evil that men and women do when they are veiled behind the beneficence of religion, as Lyra Belacqua and her dæmon Pan did in the His Dark Materials trilogy. Because I remembered spirits like Ms. Caddell and Mrs. Johnson, who let love shine outwardly in their actions, I carried these ideas on with kindness. And I began to write.
With my identity development came a sense of letting go, a new-found ability to let loose and free fall into adventure. I didn’t even let a smidgen in at first; I was happy reading my books in the comfort of my third-story apartment bedroom and playing Final Fantasy X after algebra homework was knocked out. Then my parents said it was time to get active. So I joined my middle school’s swim team – and found out how to make a worthy story of myself.
It was a hell of a pain trying to become a free spirit and write about it. For the first two weeks that fall, I swam laps with older, much more in shape students, repining once my lungs gave out and sitting on the sidelines to see them swim that much farther than me. A desire for personal achievement was born out of my complacency, and I knew I was done with not rising up to the challenge. I swam and took Coach T’s compassion and drive to heart, making it my own and owning up to the scrawny body I’d been dealt. Swim practice at 6:30 every morning. All the coffee in the world couldn’t make me feel ready for that first cold dive. Still, it was a personal honor to become better, to propel myself off that swim block in a dozen different swim meets and shoot through that water. I liked the competition, but more than that, I lived for the team bonding. There was Dustin, the funny guy, and Meghan, the popular girl who also did baton twirling. And Krista, my first girlfriend. I liked my shy romance; it balanced out all the cheering and soreness I went through at every swim meet.
When I wasn’t writing about my high school drama and dreams, I found that I could express the man behind the words in blog form. There wasn’t always a man there, though. The jealous depression I felt over my second major crush was fodder for immaturity, and I kept eating it up. I fed on the melodrama. I nursed my addiction and stopped making waves again.
Getting to college was like crossing a finish line, though. Suddenly, liking men wasn’t all that alien. I allowed myself to be that person, shedding the timidity and doubt that I got from my parents. I thought I was reclaiming my beliefs, but I was actually developing them for the very first time. And I never stopped reading. Michael Crichton, Chris Lynch, and Robert Cormier were my three kings. Vacillating back and forth between medical dramas and YA novels kept me sharp, as did my classes in psychology. In some ways I stumbled; I had too many test-run relationships, and my love for myself faltered. But those low points were exactly where I could start to write again and mean it.
With the memory of my early teachers and my love for triathlon guiding me, I wrote like my friends’ existence depended on it. I worked on my first novel, In the Words of Your Love, from January of 2007 until December of 2009. After many edits, I think it finally does justice to all the growing up we decided to do in high school. Then came Complex, my second novel, which I started and finished over the summer of 2011. It tells the story of six college students figuring out how to spend a summer in dead-end Presidio Plains. Staggering under different struggles, from childhood abuse to a thesis that never seems to end, the friends find their resolve for the sake of one another. That’s how I’ve lived my life, and I’m satisfied with the friends I’ve chosen to stand by.
I didn’t always have a lot to stand for. But I was always a people person, and it took kind spirits like my favorite English teachers to show me how to channel that empathy into storytelling. As I study to become a counselor, I find myself walking the same road and relating to others on so many levels. I write to honor those bonds, to bare my mistakes and gives thanks to my quirky friends. My mom and dad, who always pushed me harder than was reasonable, but oh how they love me. Even more courageously, now I’ll be writing on behalf of my partner and the oppression that clashes with our love. I don’t need to write to get even. Whatever my cause, I’m still totally invested in this journey. More stories are on the way.
Because I know there are people who say all these things don’t happen. And there are people who forget what it’s like to be 16 when they turn 17. I know these will all be stories someday. And our pictures will become old photographs. We’ll all become somebody’s mom or dad. But right now, these moments are not stories. This is happening.