The Chicago Tribune quoted me in 1962 as saying, “I’d like to be a writer, because then I could live wherever I wanted. I guess I’d have to be able to sell my stuff though.” I repressed writing for 16 years.
In 1978 I was engaged in an attempt to smoke up all of the reefer on the South Side of Chicago. One weekend in late July, I did. Perhaps in conjunction with that triumph, I also seemed to have finally killed off whatever brain cells had been telling me I couldn’t be a writer and didn’t need to try. Victory was mine.
I started with a journal. It was actually a diary, but I called it a journal. Reading those journals makes me wince now, and writing in them made me start to learn a new language that would adequately describe my inner life. I’m doing verbs now.
For years afterward, wherever I was working I’d try to get them to let me write something, anything—the newspaper ad, the tags on the merchandise, the signs for the picnic, the wording on forms, whatever. That hardly ever worked.
Just after my 47th or -8th job, in 1987 in Saint Paul, Margaret Vaillancourt saw me whip through a crossword and said she’d bet I’d be a good editor. I didn’t know what an editor did, so she told me.
I used the last of my unemployment to buy The Chicago Manual of Style and Copyediting by Karen Judd. I studied them and memorized proofreading symbols and took copyediting and proofreading tests all over the Twin Cities. I read galleys sporadically for The Utne Reader until I got hired as a proofreader at a children’s book publisher.
I was a 42-year-old beginner. Five years later I had six books in print and was editing a magazine. Three years after that I was cleaning houses and delivering The New York Times on the weekend.
Here’s what I like about writing:
• No special equipment—a pencil and paper or board or rock or the right sort of skin will do nicely. I’m not about to give up my Mac, but you see what I mean.
• It’s solo work. I’m not much of a collaborator. I’ve tried it a couple of times. I never learned to play tennis because playing required a social engagement—way too much trouble. I ride a bicycle instead.
• You don’t have to be good to be a writer. If you can read this—and often even if you can’t—you can write. Getting published is something else. The only person I know who makes a living solely as a writer is successful because she knows how to pitch an idea and deliver intelligible prose on deadline, much rarer skills than just writing, no matter how beautiful. Thus we have poetry.
• You don’t have to be good to be published, either.
Now, with the combination of this column and the distinct slide of my short-term memory, some of you know more about me than I do. Remember that, because I probably won’t.