Kate Flora: Last week my husband and I were sitting with some good old friends in
Oxford, England, talking about the length of our friendship, and what we were doing now, the usual catching up people do. I had brought them a copy of And Grant You Peace and our hostess asked me if I’d always wanted to be a writer.
It’s a pretty common question to ask an author. It comes up all the time during book talks at libraries and bookstores. I think my usual answer probably is something along the lines of “all my life” and then I move on. But the question made me reflect on what the real answer was. I was always enchanted by books and what authors can do. Certainly, like many another, I was writing from a very young age. Middle school was a particularly fertile time, when my friend Pammie and I wrote plays and epic poems. In high school and after, I wrote a joint novel with my oldest friend Karin, the two of us sending chapters back and forth. Later, I did the same thing with a housemate from college.
But despite all that, and despite the fact that my mother was a writer, the answer I gave to my hostess’s question, one that surprised me, perhaps, as much as it did her, was that when I was growing up, I didn’t actually believe I was allowed to become a writer. To write, perhaps, but not to be allowed to call myself a writer. I might have dreamed about it. I might have longed to have that special, magic talent that would let me take people into a world I’d imagined and hold them there, but it seemed beyond the scope of the life I was living on a farm in rural Maine to imagine that I would actually be allowed to call myself a writer. It seemed too proud. Arrogant, even. And I truly believed that writers were people with a special gift, anointed somehow to engage in their chosen craft, while I was just a dreamy farmer’s daughter.
One of the things that made it seem more like an impossible dream than a reality was that
I knew I would have to make a living. My childhood was a constant series of financial crises. Agriculture of any sort is a fickle business, and as the price of eggs rose and fell, it seemed we were always in danger of losing the farm. My siblings and I would huddle in a dark, safe place at the top of the cellar stairs when the bill collectors came to the door. Being safe from a life like that meant going to college and choosing a career that would give me a more reliable income.
I dutifully went to college. Then, after discovering that my degree in English, which I had believed was the magic ticket to a career, qualified me for little, I went to law school. During those years of school and starting to practice law, I was too busy to do much more than dream about writing, or dip my toe in in the form of the occasional writing class. But in one of those occasional writing classes, one that either met in a damp church basement in Wellesley, Massachusetts, or at night in a classroom at Brandeis, I was anointed. It came in the form of an offhand comment from the instructor, Arthur Edelstein, along the lines of “Don’t let them tell you otherwise. You ARE a writer.”
It was several more years before I was able to wrap the mantle of that permission around me and sit down to give writing a serious try. For some of us, it seems, we have to reach a point where the passion for trying outweighs the fear of failing. And so, when my second son was born, I thought I’ve always wanted to write, and maybe it is something I can do around the busy lives of two small boys. They never slept. They were never still, and yet somehow, a year later, I typed “The End” at the bottom of my first novel. It went into a drawer and was followed by two more, and ten long years in the unpublished writer’s corner, before I published my first book. Claiming to be a writer still cowed me so much that I think I had sold my fifth book before I started putting “Writer” in the line that asked for occupation.
And in gratitude to the great man who took the time to anoint me, I now tell my students two important things. First, that if you want to be a published writer, you’ll need the hide of an alligator, because our world is full of rejection. But second, and more important, although most of the world will try to convince you that you’re not, rejection will outweigh praise, and you have to be your own cheerleader, you are allowed. Only YOU get to decide that you’re a writer.