I’ve written steadily but not seriously as far back as I can remember writing anything at all.
When I was in elementary school I wrote a story on notebook paper, tucked it in a manila folder and stapled it together. On the cover I’d drawn a black and white cat and with great care spelled out the title ‘Oreo.’ I was so proud as I watched my grandmother read the story then set it down, take my chubby face into her cold hands and ask a question I didn’t know the meaning of, “Did you follow your soul when you wrote this?” I shook my head yes and she nodded as if she knew my answer before she asked it. Then, she told my Grandpa I was brilliant.
I don’t remember the details of the story, but I’m sure that anything my 8 year old self had come up with didn’t enter into the narrow borders of brilliance.
When I grew a little older, self consciousness crept in and even though she asked, I stopped showing stories to my grandmother. Instead I filled notebooks, staying up late into the night crafting the lives of fictional people who would never be remembered except by their creator. When I came to the end of a notebook I ripped each page out and shred it into small pieces, making sure its words could never be pieced together.
In high school I wrote stories when I should have been taking notes in Chemistry or conjugating verbs in Spanish. Writing was why I failed Algebra and why I almost failed it again in summer school. It was why my best friend refused to be my lab partner. And why junior year my guidance counselor called me into her office and with no guidance to give thrust a pile of college applications at me, waving a dismissive hand filled with gaudy gold rings, as she told me to get serious.
I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything but stories. The few times I thought about sharing them I decided I’d rather walk through the halls of my high school naked. It would have been less revealing and easier to recover from.
There are no words to describe the time I emailed my old high school, non lab partner, friend the first story I’d shown anyone in years. I survived the horror and the first critique, the second and all that have followed. I thought I’d overcome the angry gremlin that sits by me as I write and tells me to tear the pages into pieces or talks me into pressing ‘delete.’ I share my short stories all the time.
I didn’t think I was afraid until a friend who also happens to be a writer asked if I wasn’t working on a novel because I feared failure. My first instinct was to shout “No” until I realized he was right. Failure and rejection are what I feared when I was in high school hiding the fact that I wrote from anyone. Failure made me light headed when I shared a story for the first time. It was a rude realization to find that failure, not my lack of will is why I’ve never finished a novel. It made me think.
I wondered what 8 year old Callie would think if she knew about my fear? She wrote whatever ridiculous thing came into her mind with childlike care and clumsiness, then thrust hastily stapled pages into the waiting hands of the only one whose opinion she craved.
She would tell me to write. She would say the scarier the better. She would tell me to listen to my grandmother.
As I close this screen and begin the third day of working on my novel, I start knowing that I will finish. I start by telling the gremlin who trumpets my failure to take a hike.
I write with my grandmother’s words in my head. When I’m done, though she is far away and unwell I will answer yes to the question she cannot ask. I’ll close my eyes and remember the feel of her cold hands on my face and the question she whispered, “Did you follow your soul when you wrote this?”
Callie Armstrong © 2013