When Do We Start Becoming Writers?
In nearly all in-depth interviews with writers, the question of artistic influence from their parents arises. Each time it does, I answer it for myself while reading online or listening in my car: absolutely none. My father is retired from the New York State police and my mother jumped from office job to office job throughout my childhood, most recently settling into a work-from-home position where she transcribes insurance claims detailing things like roofers falling from shaky gutters. Neither is a reader. Both come from hard-nosed "just work, don't think" type families. I didn't read at all as a kid, and my childhood home, completely remodeled by my father, seemed to be designed in direct opposition to the idea of a later library. I hated school. Even though I was writing poetry and short fiction, I failed half my classes during the first semester of college. So where does my need to create come from? What made me -- somewhere seeded in my family history and then grown in my childhood -- pursue writing?
James Baldwin, when asked if he was compelled to write answered, "Yeah, nobody would do it if they weren't compelled." It's a wonderful answer, and when the interviewer presses him, "Well, then what compels you?" Baldwin says, "Good question, I don't know." I appreciate this second answer even more. If you watch the video of the interview, Baldwin is his usually snappy self in the first reply, but the second answer he gives in a kind of haze, staring off, not sure, a little lost. But it's one of the most honest answers to the question, and one of our greatest thinkers boils it down to "because you have to, it's what you are." Baldwin is writing out of a complex history involving his traumatic childhood (broken family, intense religion, drug abuse, beaten by police at age ten) and outsider status as a gay black man living in 1950s America. I've tried to locate the genesis or reason behind my own need to write through my family history for years. I seemingly come from nowhere.
Writers tend to spout from three major branches, sometime in combination: family history (see: Martin Amis, Joe and Owen Hill, Lydia Davis, Nick Harkaway); childhood abuse or early traumatic events (see: Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, Jeannette Walls, James Baldwin); prodigy child (see: Jonathan Lethem, Dimitri Semenikhin, Harold Bloom, Christopher Paolini). Retracing my own family history, there is not one instance of a writer or artist (my family's biggest claim to fame is the 1781 Dietz Massacre, where my relatives were scalped and slaughtered by Native Americans not far from where my parents currently reside in a sea of chain restaurants). I didn't have an abusive childhood. It was suburban middle class all the way and embarrassingly white -- we owned both a jumbo trampoline and a Jet Ski. I was amazingly average in school. In high school I graduated 200th out of exactly 400 kids. When I failed math I was sent to summer school, where I was able to balance out my failing final test score of fifty-six by scoring a near perfect ninety-eight on the retake. A purple participation ribbon (spelling bee) and a third-place trophy (for a karate tournament involving only six kids) define my childhood.
Of course, my artistic inclinations don't come from exactly nowhere. I've recently located a partial answer, stemming from my mother and her need to sign me up for a variety of artistic pursuits as a child. Here's a few of the lessons I took, all before I turned ten years old: drawing, comic-strip drawing, painting, tap dance, swimming, karate, singing, flute. The two that lasted the longest, and that I remember most clearly, are the painting and tap-dance lessons, the latter of which was "balanced out" by my mother immediately gifting me a He-Man action figure following every class.
I was average in both activities. After each painting class, the teacher would "touch-up" my work by redoing the entire thing, the result resembling a much older and polished person's work, say, a freshman at Bard and not a talentless nine-year-old. But my mother was always impressed, and never saw through the scam. She signed me up for more lessons. I loved the process of creating something, no matter how messy, on a white canvas, and this was one beginning to my creative life. I still have these paintings -- a lighthouse at dusk with crashing waves on black rocks is a personal favorite -- and I can't understand how my mother didn't see what was going on because on the lower right corner was my signature, not in a controlled cursive or delicate script, but in a large block of collapsing letters.
The tap dance lessons were more of the same. I was consistent in my middle-of-the-road talent. My parents said if I practiced hard enough I would get a scholarship, referencing another boy in the class who no doubt came from a long history of mothers who were all retired Rockettes, repairing their legs in some mountainous Switzerland fountain of youth. So I practiced on the cement floor in my parent's cold garage all winter, amongst the snow blower and my father's tools -- practical and useful things -- a skinny kid tapping a non-rhythm in the silence. I never got the scholarship, but I learned to sing songs and dance closely with other bodies. I learned to move my own body in new ways and process the connecting tissue between music, mind, and physical movement. The most vivid memory I have from my tap dance career is standing in a line with three other boys, a marginal "good" role, wearing a sailor costume, singing the line, "Watching all the girls go by..." as the girl tap-dancers skipped past.
The reasons my mother signed me up for these classes aren't as random as I'd like to think. She simply wanted me to do something, anything, and these were the activities advertised on the bulletin board in the break room at her office job. This was before we had cable television and video games and cell phones. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure what I would have done without these lessons. Stare at my father staring at the snow as it fell? But because my mother, like my father, comes from a family that deeply embraces a "just go, just work, don't overthink it" attitude, she signed me up for all the classes. She was not only acting on her own family history of work ethic, but she also thought having me participate in these activities was worthwhile because it was positive movement, it was just doing something, and that held value. What she didn't realize was that these artistic activities would have a profound and lasting effect.
This is where I get my compulsion to write and where I began to be creative. James Baldwin I'm not. But it's my earliest pinpointing on becoming a writer. It's the "just go" attitude of my family history combined with pursuits like painting and tap dancing that I absorbed at a young age. These activities grew inside me. If a recent study in Science suggesting reading literature correlates to empathy and emotional intelligence, then I would also like to believe that any artistic endeavor holds similar possibilities, and our own children are waiting. I may have been average, but this was my beginning.
Shane Jones is the author of the novels Light Boxes and Daniel Fights a Hurricane, both available from Penguin Books. His nonfiction work has appeared in: Salon, VICE, The Rumpus, Tin House, Fanzine, Thought Catalog, Htmlgiant, The Believer, The Millions, and forthcoming at Los Angeles Review of Books. His next novel, Crystal Eaters, will be published by Two Dollar Radio in 2014.
Image: Genius of Greek Poetry by George Frederick Watts