Stories for Lent: #1 Hiding Too Well

“I didn’t even know you still wrote!” my brother said over Christmas when I let it slip I was looking for an agent.
Let it slip… I’m making it sound like this huge secret when in reality all I did was keep things professional. You don’t go crowing about your team project ‘about to hit’ an important stage, and you don’t go making a big deal out of almost being to the point of winning a research grant. It’s bad luck. More to the point, it invites uncomfortable questions.
But my brother’s words made me sit up. It wasn’t invasive questioning: it was shocking.
I’ve done it again, I think.
*
Hiding in plain sight sounds like something a spy would do, or an animal, to adapt to a strange new environment. I am neither. Or am I? Where do authors get their ideas? They certainly don’t go up to people and just start quizzing them on their lives. No. They draw inspiration from their environment and experience.
(Be careful when you raise your voice on the train, kids. You never know who’s listening.)
But I was… I am hiding my writing. I have been for a long time.
I remember being little – very little, too young to have totally grasped the idea of an inside voice – and someone or another would chastise me for talking to myself. “Stop it,” went the refrain of my childhood, “only the crazies do that.” And it wasn’t just one particular adult that I recall saying that. It seems, looking back, that everyone was telling this to me.
Being a kid, these admonishments did a really good job of frightening me… just not enough for me to actually stop. I learned to close the door. I figured out where the floors creaked in each house and I made sure to tread carefully when my pacing took me to that part of the room. I listened for footsteps and shut my mouth as soon as a doorknob turned. Eventually, I figured out how to only say the words inside my head and not out loud, and my life got infinitely easier. I could say “I’m thinking” when someone asked me what I was doing, instead of the much more incriminating “nothing”.
Why? Because I thought I was crazy and I didn’t want my family to find out. I made up stories, featuring with characters from my favorite cartoons, and then later people I came up with, and I told them to myself because there wasn’t that much on the telly and I got easily bored. I thought I was crazy because the adults said I was. I didn’t realize until just a few short months ago that, actually, I was just a kid. And not that special.
*
“I didn’t even know you still wrote.”
See, I never stopped. Not really.
When I was little, I was the “artist” – I drew, and I drew voraciously, on anything I could get my hands on (and boy, did that get me in trouble sometimes!) I was a ditzy brat, and a sickly one to boot, until they had my tonsils taken out. When you don’t get much contact time with your friends, you can’t go outside, and you can’t yet read, there are only so many quiet past-times to go through. My drawing wasn’t seen as anything strange. Even when I went to an “artistic” primary school, there weren’t that many eyebrows raised.
Then we moved, and I grew up a little. My new school was more traditional, and art only had a slot on one day of the week. By that time, though, we were getting our penmanship sorted out, which meant that one medium changed for another, and I started writing.
And then I got older.
And then I got older.
And then I got older.
I got old enough for people to ask me what I wanted to do with my life. I got old enough to decide what exams to study for, what subjects to choose, what profession to aim for. And because I was old enough, I knew I’d be asked some very tough questions about my aspirations. So I asked them for myself first.
Gosh, that makes me sound more mature than I really am.
*
“I want to write. I want to study languages.”
“And what will you do with that?”
I couldn’t say.
The truth is that I’d been doing my homework, checking out the reality of writers’ finances, and the outlook hadn’t been particularly good. I read how self-employed taxes were the devil, and paychecks were infrequent, and no health insurance and that had scared me. (Even without tonsils, I was a perpetually sick person.) But the real fear, the thing that kept my mouth shut and wired during those discussions of my future, ran a lot deeper than the newbie author jitters.
I had been raised on responsibility. From the age of five onward, I was a big sister. I was the person who is supposed to be setting the example. I was told again and again that people who fail are lazy, and there is nothing worse than being a failure.
I didn’t excel at school because I loved knowledge. I excelled because I was terrified of failure.
I didn’t just hang back from big social experiments because I didn’t enjoy company; I was terrified of being excluded, or ridiculed, or kicked out.
I didn’t put up a fight for my writing because I thought it was hard to succeed, I was terrified of it not being up to scratch, or being messy, of being ridiculed. It’s so much easier to protect something when you’re hiding it from the world.
I believed, from the bottom of my heart, that I shouldn’t go around calling myself an artist if I didn’t know 100% that I would succeed.
It’s bad luck, you know.
*
Messes, though.
Messes are where the good stuff happens.
I didn’t know that. I didn’t know I’d have to get depressed or break my heart – several times over – before the writing would happen. I didn’t realize how I’d have to go out into the real world and get some real bumps and bruises before I’d even get to writing. In many ways, for all my maturity at 18, I was still a child.
These days, my brother is the artist of the family. He’s the one who burns bright with passion and determination. I’m a candle flame trying to shed light next to an inferno.
But I’m still hiding.
Perhaps that’s the problem. I’ve gotten too good at it.

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