For the past couple of days I’ve been giving my little sister Fish* a hand by helping her revise her college application essay. She’s seventeen and applying to a bunch of different schools and programs, but what she most wants to do is go to film school. She spent several weeks this summer at the New York Film Academy, learning the mechanics of film making, and in the process she got to try her hand at writing, directing, editing, and camera work. There is a creative streak that runs through my family, and Fish has such a sharp mind–she is going to be a great film maker one day.
I’ve been editing my brother’s college essays for years, and as smart and educated as my brother is, writing is not necessarily his greatest strength. It’s funny, because I remember the way his essays read during his freshman year, and last quarter, four years later, I helped him out on several final papers. The changes in the execution of his compositions are staggering. He barely needs my help anymore, he’s in complete command of language as a way to exposit and argue and convince. I expected reading Fish’s essay would be like reading JJ’s freshman year papers, but that kid knows what she wants to say and she knows exactly how to say it. I made almost no changes, only smoothed out the language in places and pointed out a mixed metaphor. I’m super impressed with her, and I told her that she’s a very good writer, which is not a compliment I bestow frivolously. I’m really excited for the work she’s going to do in school, and afterwards, and as adorable as she was when she was little I’m so glad she’s finally grown up, that we can talk about things like art and writing and creativity, that we can help each other with our projects (she is always one of my first readers, and I value her opinion very highly).
It occurs to me now how incredibly lucky I am to have the family I do, to have been raised the way I was, to have the support of my parents and siblings. I’m somewhat of a strange person, so it’s no surprise that there is this theme flowing like an underground stream through of almost all of my fiction, this idea of how important it is to know and be known by others. To be seen for who you truly are, to be accepted for and because of who you are. It feels so absolutely necessary to happiness.
My friend Cambria has this theory about how some people are what she calls “specific,” that they are perhaps a bit too idiosyncratic to be understood, to be known in the sense that I just used it above, by most of the people they meet. For a long time, she used to label other people we knew this way and put us in the other category, the category of people that are more generally palatable.
But about two years ago we were having one of our typically bizarre conversations, who knows what about, and I turned to her and said, “You know what? I think we’re specific, too.” I don’t mean that in a condescending, angsty way–we’re so misunderstood, wah!–but my entire point was that when you have an outsized personality, you sometimes feel too weird for most people, like even though they’re laughing at your jokes and nodding along with what you’re saying they also secretly think you’re insane. And that’s cool in its own way, but it can also be pretty lonely. But then I think of my own life, and the fact that I need two hands to count the people who really know me, and I remember how lucky I am. Plus, I’m getting the chance to be heard by people outside my immediate circle of friends and family by having my books published, and writing a book, at least for me, is an act of reaching out. It’s pretty much the most awesome opportunity ever and boy am I grateful for it.
It’s important for me to remember all this, to write it down where somebody can read it, because tonight I finished my first revision of MB and I ended up feeling like a total hack, like I was just wasting my and everybody else’s time. This happens to all writers, I’m pretty sure–it’s our secret fear that we’re talentless frauds. But the truth is that there are hits and there are misses, that writing gets better over time if you work at it, and that if the things that you write are important and worthwhile and meaningful to you, if they’re honest, then it’s never a waste. I write for a lot of reasons, but I think at the very core of it I write so that people can know who I am as a person, how I feel and what I think. Fiction gives me the opportunity to do that in a way that is largely not deliberate, choreographed, or over thought. That’s why I love it so much.
*Not her real name, but one of a billion of her nicknames. Just in case you think my parents are monsters who would name their child “Fish.”