This weekend my husband and I decided to take a little detour into Truckee, a mountain town down the highway from where we live, to try out a new sushi restaurant that our friends had highly recommended. With a name like ‘Drunken Monkey’, we knew that it had to be good.
So we sat outside in the shade, surrounded by families on a Saturday stroll and a few other restaurant/bars. The only other table in the shade on the patio was the one right next to ours. There was a family sitting there, eating their dessert and just finishing up their visit. The couple’s daughter might have been ten or eleven, at least old enough to follow some of the conversation without getting too incredibly bored.
We started talking with this couple (who had also lived in Boulder, CO, where I went to college) who now lived in Truckee. We talked about our careers, having moved all over the country for this opportunity or that. They were very kind people who were just as interested (or seemed to be) in what we had to say as we were in their stories. Then the man looked at me and asked what I did.
“Oh, I’m a freelance editor and I write fiction,’ I told him with a smile. Most peoples’ reactions when I say that are wide eyes, nods, and a statement about how cool that is or how nice it must be. I get to smile and agree with them, and more often than not the conversation turns to other things only vaguely related. Sometimes it’s hard for me to tell whether or not their blank looks are of envy, apathy, or they really just have never heard anyone say that was their profession and don’t quite know what it entails.
But this man did not do any of those things. A huge grin spread across his face, and he said, “Oh, Melena’s a writer.”
I looked at his daughter, who had shrunken remarkably quickly into her chair.
“Really?” I asked her.
She wouldn’t look at me, but pleaded up at her parents from across the table. “No. I’m not. I’m not,” she stammered, and her face turned bright red.
My insides did a flip as I watched this girl, and I wanted to give her a great big hug. That 10-year-old person was me! I knew that sinking feeling that actually translated into getting as close to under the table as possible. I knew the humiliation of my parents telling complete strangers about what I did, boasting about me like I was the most skilled person they’d ever known. I knew the feeling of my face turning beet red and wanting the conversation to turn to something else, anything else, just so I wouldn’t be the center of attention anymore. Or the topic of conversation. This girl’s hasty refusal to own the title “writer” was not out of a prematurely formed sense of humility, or doubt in her own abilities. I had had the exact same reaction SO many times in my life, and I knew that it was because she didn’t think she had quite earned the title. She didn’t think she was “super talented” because her parents said so. She didn’t think anything of her talents whatsoever. She loved to write, she did it whenever she could, she loved her writing and it was a part of her and she was good. In her mind, that did ˆnotˆ make her a writer. In her mind, she shouldn’t be allowed to carry that title because she hadn’t yet done all the steps and hard work that adults who call themselves ‘writers’ must have already done.
I knew this was how she felt, because I only recently (we’ll say in the last few years) have stopped feeling that way myself.
I had to approach gently. I leaned in toward their table and smiled at her. “It feels really weird when people say you’re a writer, huh?” I asked. She shrugged and gave a sheepish smile, nodded. “I used to hate it when people said that about me, too. It makes you feel kind of different, like you just do it for yourself because it’s fun, not so you can tell people about it, right?”
Something changed then. I think she realized that I wasn’t talking to her like this to back up what her parents had said. I was talking to her like this because I wanted to talk to her, because I knew how she felt. She saw this and sat up straight, eyes bright, and nodded again. This time her smile was of relief, like somebody finally got it.
“I’ll tell you a little secret that I learned,” I said. I have never been so raptly listened to by a 10-year-old. “I thought for a long time that I wasn’t allowed to call myself a writer either. But then one day I tried it, and it wasn’t so bad. People like to hear you say you’re a writer, and a lot of them will ask you more about it. And when you start calling yourself a writer, as long as you love it and you don’ t stop writing, then it means you actually are a writer. That’s what I even went to college for. You can be a writer forever, and you can write long books, and get things published, and talk to other writers, and then it gets really fun.”
This little girl grinned at me and I sat back, having shared my secret. When I asked her what kinds of things she wrote, she didn’t hesitate this time.
“Stories,” she said.
“What kind? What’s your favorite thing to write about?”
Her dad suggested that she share the title of what she had told him was her favorite.
“The Lonely Cheese!” she said, and joined us when we laughed at the awesome title.
The conversation continued, and I noticed the dad’s eyes starting to tear up just a little when he smiled. He was SO proud of his daughter, and I knew that look, too.
They had signed their check for dinner, and were rounding up the conversation and their things. I had to make a move. I asked to borrow their pen, found that my hands were shaking; not from nerves or feeling like I had overstepped my bounds. No, I was shaking because I had the sense that what I was about to do, this tiny little act, may change the course of Time’s Wheel. I was about to do something that, looking back, I wished someone had done for me when I was ten. In a way, I was doing it for myself.
Unfortunately, I had decided to leave my purse at home, with my business cards inside, and I didn’t even have my usual noteboook for paper emergencies. But I had an old piece of paper in my wallet, and wrote down my name and contact information. Not as professional as I would have liked, but it was something.
As this cute family was getting ready to go, I walked up to the girl and bent down just a little so I felt like we were “on the same level”. “And this is for you,” I said, holding out the card. “My name is Kat, and if you ever want anybody to take a look at your stories, read through them, let you know what they think – if you need any help with them at all – send me an email, ok? That’s what I do.”
She grinned at me in surprise and took the skimpy piece of paper with my email address. Her parents oohed and awed about how nice that was, and before they left, I reminded her that I’d be looking out for her email so I can read some of her writing.
“Okay,” she said, and as they walked past our table she actually mouthed the words “Thank you,” to me.
I don’t know if I ever will actually get an email from her. I don’t know if my husband and I will ever bump into the family again. But Melena, wherever you are, don’t stop writing. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you are and are not allowed to call yourself. Do what you love, and whatever that is, that’s what you are.