I am a writer now, but when I was a little girl, I thought I would grow up to be a painter. After all, I painted nearly every day. And when I wasn’t painting, I was drawing. Mostly princesses. Sometimes their stepsisters, who always turned out not to be evil in the stories in my head. The princesses also always had brown hair. That was important.
Sometimes I drew cats, because I secretly wished that I was part cat, or at least would end up being able to communicate with cats psychically (at eight or so, I finally had to admit that I still couldn’t understand cat thoughts, but to this day, I have dreams with cats in them more than I think the ordinary person does, soo…just sayin’).
I started drawing as soon as I could hold a pastel, and I didn’t stop until I was maybe seventeen.
When I was fifteen, I put a bunch of my canvasses in an enormous plastic carry-case and went to New York City, to an art school fair at Pratt, where schools had set up booths and for the first few minutes, it seemed like I was the only person there not wearing black.
“You are really talented,” I was told by several schools. “But you’re too young. Why are you here?”
I was there because I painted all the time.
(rejection makes me feel like this)
It’s been almost a year since I last played keyboard. My senior year of college, I played nearly every day. I had a beat up, sized down silver keyboard on a stand, and I wrote music constantly. Song after song about the parking lot that my dorm room looked over, and what it might symbolize about life. Song after song about the guy who acted like he liked me back and then seemed to change his mind. Occasionally I wrote about both things at the same time:
“All the cars in the parking lot are waiting, waiting, but they play it cool/ I know, I know exactly what I want/ but there are so many rules…”
See what I did there? It’s like I’m the cars! I’m so clever. So very clever.
(That’s what I was thinking when I wrote those lyrics.)
I always forget that on my OKCupid profile—the one that Bear read before he sent me the message that started our relationship—I called myself a singer-songwriter. That was the first thing I said about myself.
He asked me if I performed my music a lot. Actually, I never had. Actually, when he asked me that, I realized that I never had. So why had I put that? Why had I identified myself that way in a city full of real singer-songwriters with record deals and concert tours or at least a long string of open mics.
Because I’d been writing songs since I was fourteen. Because when I said goodbye at the train station to the boy who acted like he liked me back, and goodbye meant goodbye forever, I went straight to my keyboard and wrote a song about it. I was sitting there without my shirt on, because it was hot, but I didn’t have time to take off my pants. I was sitting there without my shirt, but with my jeans and boots on, and I was writing a song that had this lyric “I swam the river Styx/ I crossed every last line/ I waited at the gates of hell, but he wouldn’t let me inside.” The piano part pounded. I played it over and over, until I felt better. And really, I felt better.
I played that song for the first time in over a year the other night. My fingers still knew the notes. I knew where it swelled, and where it fell tremblingly back.
Sometimes, suddenly, I even get the urge to paint. I want to paint naked women, emerging out of blocks and curtains of color. I want to paint with metallic gold on cream. I want to paint in every shade of red.
And I remember that I used to be a painter, even I never ended up going to art school.
I’m not sure why we are all supposed to pick one thing. One thing to pin to our chests so the world can define us. I’m not sure why we only get a moment to answer the question, “What do you do?”
As a teenager, my interests rotated through a cycle. One month I was recording music for hours every day. The next, I was working on a book about a queen who had fallen in love with a servant. The next, I was painting portraits of all the characters in that book. My identity hovered above the turns of the cycle. It was all of those things. It was bigger, too. It was based on the push inside me. The drive to constantly create new things.
For my first year out of grad school, I was sort of a mess. I was a writer without any real proof. I had picked it, because I knew I wanted it, because I’d always written, and also because you have to pick a thing, eventually, and I was no longer a student.
“What do you do?” people asked. They meant “What are you?”
“I’m a writer,” I said, and it felt like it was just another word. Like I was just another kid in Brooklyn who had a notebook with some ideas in it for a novel they would probably never write.
I felt like I’d never done anything. Like I was nothing. I felt like I couldn’t even do the one thing I’d picked.
But that was never true. I had already written a book about a queen who loved a servant. And a whole collection of songs, just about parking lots and love. And the paintings. The one of the naked woman wearing a tallis (traditional Jewish prayer shawl), that perched behind my desk all through college and intimidated anyone who came back to my dorm room.
I am not a great performer. My songs, in front of other people, often come out squeaky. My fingers fumble over the keys. I have never really wanted to fill a gallery with my paintings. My technique is not very refined, anyway. You can tell, I’m impatient, I’m still bad at hands.
There are so many things that I do that I don’t need to share with the world. That don’t demand attention. That won’t become careers and won’t be subjected to critics and won’t be compared and measured and ranked. Sometimes I forget that I am those things, too. Not just the things I hold out to the world. Not just the things that my byline clings to the bottom of. Not just the things on my resume or the quick bios I write for myself that have to be both careless and impressive-sounding. Not just the things that fit into the one word– “writer”– I get to describe who I am now. Who I have grown up to be.
Sometimes I forget that “writer” isn’t all of who I am. There isn’t a word for that. Even “artist” seems vague, and so I don’t know the word for still wanting to create new things.
I am a writer now. I have the evidence. But when I was a little girl, I thought I would grow up to be a painter. And you know what? I think maybe I did.
(the naked woman in the tallis. she’s been with me for a while now.)
* * *
What are the other things you do, that make you who you are?
Unroast: Today I love the colors in my skin. There are a lot of them.
Here is an awesome picture of a reader eating cake and wearing what appear to be fantastic green pants. Send me your cake pic soon!
P.S. Stay tuned for a clothing giveaway. I think that might start tomorrow.
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