About nine months before I wrote my first book, I told my former high school English teacher to stop asking when I was going to write a novel.
“I’m never going to be that kind of writer,” I explained. “I’m a critic. I write nonfiction.”
As a PhD student, what I said was true. I loved being an English nerd, and I was good at reading other people’s books and thinking through the problems they presented.
As the person who had taught me literature, my teacher understood. But maybe she also sensed the truth: There existed a secret part of me, one I’d papered over with critical essays, that longed to make rather than just dissect.
Because I had papered over that part, I had decided long ago that I wasn’t any good at creative writing because it was so hard. Ideas for essays, on the other hand, came to me easily. Reading a book, any book, turned my brain into something resembling the finale of a fireworks display. I could see multiple opportunities for arguments about gender, sexuality, power, and all the other juicy theories I’m obsessed with.
But when I sat down to write something creative, nothing happened. I vividly remember buying a how-to writing book right after graduating and thinking, Okay. You’re going to do this. Go write the Great American Novel!
I typed a sentence based on one of the book’s writing prompts.
It sat on the monitor in front of me like a steaming pile of shit.
I erased it and typed another one. It was equally shitty. I deleted it and tried again.
I did this for about 10 minutes, typing and deleting, until I had an epiphany.
I’m not meant to be a writer. At least not of fiction. Shouldn’t it be easy, if it was what I was meant to do? Writing essays was a piece of cake, so if this was hard, it probably meant I should give up.
The how-to book disappeared, along with my delusions of creativity. I became a critic, which I told myself was a perfect balance. After all, I was writing. Successfully! But it all led to that moment when…