I think I was meant to tell stories. Although I’ve reached this conclusion now, that does not mean I have always inherently thought this about myself. In fact some days, I wonder if I was ever meant to tell stories at all. I worry I read the signals wrong. Maybe I have. However, I have begun to identify myself as a storyteller after all the encouragement about my writing that I’ve had from mentors in my life–some of them only here for moments, some of them still impact me today. The bottom line is I have reached this place slowly. For those who know me this would not come as a surprise. I do nothing speedily, ever. As a result, it is equally unsurprising that I haven’t had an “ah!” moment when it comes to writing.
As a small child, I still recall making up stories and reciting them to anyone who would listen. Elementary school was a tough time for me. I had no friends, no close confidants that I could tell my deepest secrets, and no one to listen to me. I remember I used to write these comic books about a barbarian named Bob. Bob the Barbarian. Clearly I was a creative genius at the age of 10. Bob was always dressed in chainmail and a spiked viking helmet. He could fly and in every story he used his vast amounts of strength to save the day. One day I asked my teacher if I could read my comic to the class. For some reason she agreed and my classmates, likely eager to take as much time away from our studies as possible, gathered around me on the rug at the front of the room. I read my comic to the class and showed the pictures with each turn of the page. My classmates ate up every word. They asked me for more and on several other occasions I was allowed to read my comics until the rest of the class started making their own comics. After that no one was allowed to share comics anymore.
Last week I attended my first ever creative writing course. This is something that gives me both great excitement and even greater anxiety. I don’t consider myself to be a writer, at least not in any serious sense. I am especially not a writer of fiction. Well, aside from the fact that I never really grew out of telling Bob the Barbarian-esque fantasies. Now I write my friends into stories where they are the main protagonists. My latest piece stars my friend Susan who travels the world in search of a good hair cut. Along the way she befriends a unicorn named Becky. I composed this entire narrative simply to make the joke at the end, “go ask Becky with the good hair” as I was bored and thinking about Beyonce at the time. I gave the story to my friend Susan, who I assume will keep this article of my earliest work until I make it big in the world and it’s worth millions.
Anyway on the first day of this creative writing class, the professor, Dr. Bunkong Tuon, introduced himself and was so incredibly soft spoken, everyone seemed to stop breathing entirely as we leaned in to hear him. He had the class introduce themselves by going around and sharing the exact moment we knew we wanted to write. I did not tell the story about my work with Bob the Barbarian. Most of my peers shared instances of their juvenescent picture books and prepubescent poetry. Others explained they had only ever practiced writing with academic prose and wished to experience what else was out there for them. I told the story of a time in high school when I was asked to present at a retreat for my peers only a few years younger than myself. I was asked to talk about a difficult time in my life and how I persevered through it. I wrote out what I was going to say. I’ve always found it easier to write than to speak. Clutching my scrawled piece of notebook paper, I stood before my peers and recounted a time I dealt with hurt and loss, or what I thought hurt and loss was at the time. When the retreat ended, the person running it, a woman I had never met before named Maggie, approached me and thanked me for sharing such a personal experience. And then she said something that really took me by surprise. She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “You’ve got stories to tell, I know it”. This was the anecdote I shared with my creative writing class. And while it is all true, it is not the moment I knew I wanted to write. I did think it sounded like a much more interesting and mysterious story to share with the class–as if Maggie were an oracle handing down to me a prophesy from the gods with the divine purpose to be a storyteller.
For homework that night after the creative writing class, Professor Tuon assigned a piece of his own for the class to read. He said he wanted us to get to know him better. Professor Tuon’s article spoke of how his grandmother carried him on her back as an infant out of Cambodia. He lived as an orphan and as a refugee. He moved to America and grew up listless and directionless until one day, he found his way into a library and stumbled upon the work of Charles Bukowski. Bukowski’s writing really resonated with the young Tuon and Tuon made him into his “literary father” to fill the place of the one he never knew. Tuon found guidance and companionship within the words of Bukowski’s poems, short stories and novels. What Tuon described in this article he selected for the class was his answer to the moment when he knew he wanted to write.
I could hardly believe that this was the same quiet, dry humored man that sat before me only a few hours ago. He seemed to have lived several lives where I had only lived one. More intriguing still, writing seemed to be Tuon’s savior where for me it had always been a lighthearted pastime. It also became very clear to me that I did not have the same moment of clarity, the same jarring instinct to set out and just write as Tuon experienced.
Despite the differences in life circumstances that brought Tuon and myself into the world of writing, I think there is similarity in why we stayed. Tuon describes his writing to be almost therapeutic. He can create an image of his father and what that masculine presence in his life would have been like. At the core, Tuon can connect to people. He can be heard. I think this is also what motivates me to write. Just as my 10 year old self captured the attention of my classmates through my storytelling, through writing I can capture the attention of my peers still today. I am transformed. No longer am I an inarticulate and anxious mess who’s thoughts come pouring out of my mouth in a stuttering, jumbled blur. Through writing, I am fluid and eloquent. I can evoke emotional responses from those around me. I am heard. That is something of which I am most proud.
My very elaborate and long-winded point in all this is to say that personal truths come to us in a variety of ways. My professor fell into something he loved out of necessity and I admit I envy his unwavering confidence in what he’s doing. In many ways I still feel unfinished. Perhaps that’s normal for a twenty-something person as myself. Despite my uncertainty, I can’t deny the way writing makes me feel. The moment when someone reads my work and has some type of emotional connection is everything to me. I’ve had people tell me they cried after reading something I wrote. That’s perhaps my favorite reaction because it means I managed to impact that person. My soul touched theirs for just a moment. I found inspiration in writing. I found a voice. I think I was meant to tell stories.