Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Itch to Write

It's called "cacoethes scribendi." I learned that, ironically enough, from a story I taught in American Literature, about a girl who did not want to be a writer. But I understand the term all too well. It's more than simply a relentless drive to shape one's thoughts and dreams into words on a page; it's also a restless dissatisfaction when the ideas aren't coming as fast as they should, or when your life fills up with so many tasks that you can't find time to plot out the jumble of daydreams that knock at your skull, demanding to be let out.

I'm not exactly sure how old I was when the images dancing through my head began to shape themselves into stories. But I do recall my eighth birthday, when my parents presented me with a most precious gift: a typewriter. (Yes, I am really that old.) As I played with my new toy, my calling became clear. I had to write.

At this point, my writing still qualifies as a "hobby," in that I have never made a dime with it. My works have never seen print, unless this blog spot qualifies. Yet it's central to who I am, not something "tacked on" to which I gravitate whenever leisure time presents itself. I don't write because I think it will win me fame and fortune; granted, J.K. Rowling-like renown would be nice if it came, but I don't need it in order to write. I write because I can't help myself. The tiniest thing may activate that itch. I'll hear a name or a word that I like (say, "Fortunati" or "simulacrum"), and before I know it, this name or word will form the kernel of a story; imagination will wrap around it with details of plot and character. My favorite source of inspiration are my folktale collections, from generic "around-the-world" omnibuses to Andersen to Jacobs to Grimm. (I'm probably the only person I know who owns three, count 'em, three translations of the complete Brothers Grimm.) Folktales provide bare-bones plotlines and character tropes to spark obsessions, and I have to credit them when I've completed my elaborations, even when my finished product bears little resemblance to the original inspiration.

As one might guess from my fondness for folktales, my genre of choice is fantasy. The fantasy genre is inherently metaphorical; it enables me to deal with real-life ideas and issues in an indirect fashion, without being too literal. If I have something to say about the fear of helplessness and dependence, and about how those fears might be overcome, how do I get it across? I write a story called Miss Foote, about a talented ragtime musician who is shrunk to twelve inches tall and must learn a new way of navigating the world. (The inspiration for this one, incidentally, came not from a folktale but from the scene with the little people in glass jars from The Bride of Frankenstein.) What if my mission is to take down so-called "Identity Politics," the notion that people's membership in a particular gender, racial, or ethnic group makes them special, privileged characters? I write Atterwald, a tale of human/animal shapeshifters whose society is structured around a heirarchy of "Tribes." Right now I'm intrigued by the importance of dreams and their link with madness, so I'm working on a story about a malign wizard who hopes to drive an entire village insane by sending a magical being to "curse" the villagers with recurring nightmares.

Silly, isn't it? Perhaps, but I still cherish the hope that one day my writing will count as a public good rather than a mere private indulgence. I've already made progress in that direction, thanks to the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, a group to which I'm proud to belong. When I first joined the company in 2004, I thought to make my mark chiefly as an actress, my voice being my chief asset. But I quickly decided to try my hand at writing radio drama, and seven months later, I saw my first script, The House Across the Way, performed at Stone Mountain's Tomato Festival. Since then, the company has performed a number of my scripts, my favorites being The Worst Good Woman in the World (based on a folktale about a henpecked man forced to make a deal with the devil) and Nothing-at-All (an abbreviated version of Atterwald). I can't thank the good people of the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company enough for their willingness to give voice (and great voice at that!) to the ideas afloat in my head. Few things are more satisfying than hearing your daydreams come to life in the mouths of fine actors. (For the curious who might wish a taste of our work, visit and check out the podcasts thereon.)

When we hear the word "hobby," we tend to think of something frivolous and inconsequential, something we should be willing to toss aside, if need be, in favor of other concerns. But I do believe hobbies play a vital role in our existence. Not all of us enjoy the privilege of making an actual living doing what we love best -- and even if we do, our wage-earning work can't express all that we are. Hobbies give us a chance to tap into our creative energies. Whether it's hunting, baseball, or needlepoint, it gives voice to some crucial element in our characters. I'd hate to meet the person cut off utterly from his hobbies. (Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novella The Yellow Wallpaper paints a terrifying picture of what can happen when a woman is denied the chance to do what she loves.)

My writing expresses a side of myself I can never show in everyday life. I can't even articulate it in literal terms, but I know it, I feel it when I finish a good scene. Those who read it are getting a look at the real, undisguised me. I can only hope they like it.

1 comment:

  1. I hate when I read a just-published blog and discover grammar errors. It should read "sources of inspiration" -- sources plural, not "source."