I’m applying for a job that I think I really want. This school in Providence needs English teachers to teach arts integrated curriculum, which means they want people to use music, drama, film, and dance to teach language arts content. I have to write essays to convince the principal that I’m worth hiring. Talking about it is kind of a big deal, of the counting-your-chickens-before-they-hatch variety. Or it’s like when Kyoko Mori talks about why her grandmothers lived so long: “The moral of their story was that you shouldn’t wish for too much. The greatest virtue was in being content with less.” By talking about it before anything has actually happened, I feel like Mori did at one point in her memoir: “No matter what I was doing, I became terrified of bad luck when I openly wished for too much.
Normally, I wouldn’t even say anything until I found out whether or not I was accepted, and I would feel sort of mortified if I were rejected. But this is the first time I’ve let people in on my “secret.” The first time I don’t care if I don’t get the job, because I know I’m qualified. And if they don’t like me, boo hoo for them. Their loss! Did I really just say that?
This is one of the essay prompts: “Tell me about yourself as an artist.”
I’m not sure I’m the kind of “artist” they’re looking for, because this is a performing arts school, and there are a lot of things I don’t do:
monologues (I was Dorothy in my 5th grade school play, couldn’t take myself seriously)
play instruments (doesn’t count if I played flute in high school but was never in tune)
compose song lyrics (I don’t like rhyming poetry)
sing (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was WAY off key)
dance (I can’t even bend over and touch my toes)
But I can do other things. Those who know me know I can make ugly sweaters. I can draw cartoons with no facial features. And I can write. And wouldn’t it be nice to hire a teacher who could teach kids to write?
Why do I write?
I write to remember who I am. Our lives are galaxies of moments like so many stars blinking on and off. Some of these minutes and hours aren’t worth recollection; forgetting them is no great loss. But the defining moments that show others where we’ve come from should be trusted to the care of more than memory alone. Memory is too fragile, and only temporarily preserves what is worth remembering.
I write to speak new life into my own forgotten moments. The time I found a pair of tiny red rubber boots I never knew I had, but accidentally discovered on a recent trip home. My dad told me I inherited them from a cousin when I was two. My cousin skipped along the cobbled paths of Camden Market in those boots; I marched them through blueberry brush on the tundra of Northwest Arctic Alaska. Now, the boots live in Rhode Island, sitting their life on a shelf in limbo. Waiting for new feet and new landscapes, the boots will be my first family heirloom. But even when the boots trade hands among my posterity, they’ll still be mine, because I wrote their first story. Such things have to be written, because someday someone besides me will need to know what they mean.
I write to preserve moments I know well. The summer I studied illustration at the Pratt Institute. The oldest, but most inexperienced artist in the class. Perpetually in awe of my younger peers’ more refined technical skills. Conceptualized this news story in illustration:
Man in Florida raises alligators in basement (over 20!). Wife is aware of this, but forgets one day when she’s having friends over for sewing club—leaves basement door open—sounds of sewing machines arouse gators and they stampede the living room/sewing area!
My picture. In pen, colored pencil, and pastels tacked to the wall, in line with all the others. Donn Albright, our teacher, surveying the wall, pausing at mine. Singling it out, saying, “Look at this one. Look at all the details!”
Later, Donn watched over my shoulder as I sketched another assignment, one that asked us to illustrate a twentieth-century inventor with his or her invention. I chose Hedy Lamarr, the bombshell Austrian-American actress of the 40s who helped devise the wireless communication method of frequency hopping. Donn looked at the outline of Hedy’s leg on my paper and said, “Her ankles are too thick. They look like salamis. Trim them down a bit, make them sexy.” Both of these illustrations turned out beautifully. But without the voice in the words I used to tell the story of the moments that made these pictures real, one simply looks at the images without ever knowing the truth: that despite how much the specters of the white canvas, the blank page, the empty computer screen scare me when I don’t know how to start to get the job done, I eventually find the way out of my trouble. If I don’t write these things, I’ll forget that I am stronger than I think I am.
I am so many moments like this. One day, those moments I’ve recovered from my past and the ones I remember so vividly today will hardly seem real years from now. But with every sentence carefully constructed, each word thoughtfully chosen, I’ll leave enough of me scattered through time for the able reader to piece together an idea of what I was, and what I am. And if I do this with words that keep company as good friends, making people laugh or cry or think better of the world, are there greater gifts to leave behind?
And so I write. It’s my best gift to give, a safeguard against inevitable, transitory passing.
Why do you write? What do you think about writing, memory, and the Church?