writer

How to Be a Writer

In Essay Issue Nine by Sophie Narod

writer

If you want to be a writer, distinguish yourself as the last child in your first grade class to read. As a kid, you must reject every printed word that your parents dangle in front of your face and shrug your shoulders in response. Your parents will worry, and they’ll question whether your inability to read is related to your hearing loss.

In response to their anxiety, your teacher forces you to sit at the back of the classroom and practice phonics flashcards with her. And you’ll wish you were on the carpet with the rest of your class because they’re reading books to each other, and they know you can’t. They can read sentences, but you can only recognize a few words, and so you begin to resent words altogether.

Your teacher tells your parents not to worry. “Your daughter,” she promises, “will read when she’s ready.” And then, one day, you will be.

If you want to be a writer, grow up in a deaf home where all the televisions are captioned. You become an expert speller in the second grade because you’re reading adult words on television all the time. You learn where all the periods go, and how to spell words with silent letters and vowel clusters. You develop a photographic memory of sorts, so that one day you realize that you don’t really read the text on the screen, you just glance at it and all the words and its context and delivery is automatically absorbed by your mind.

Your grandmother can’t hear on the phone, so you call her every night on a TTY, an archaic machine that transmits text through the phone line. “I love you,” you type with your two little fingers each night. “I love you to the moon and back,” grandma answers. But you don’t hear her words, you read them.

At your feminist high school, you read Gertrude Stein and you hate her. You hate the way she abuses the mechanics of the language you’re being forced to use properly. “If Gertrude Stein can break all the rules, why can’t I?” you sass your teacher. The teacher—your favourite—smiles. “Sure,” she answers. “Try.”

And so you write a Stein-esque haiku about a blender, and the last line is mixing colours point. You embrace this short poem and you’ll love and remember it forever. But that day, you keep your satisfaction a secret and continue to protest aloud against Gertrude Stein’s literary crimes because this is how your class feels and you want to represent the collective. Your dissent is not genuine, however, and one day in Paris, you’ll comb through the graves at Pere Lachaise Cemetery until you find Gertrude and Alice at rest together, where you’ll leave a rose (is a rose is a rose) on her grave.

Spend a year in Israel with the goal of developing your Jewish identity. When you recognize the tension around you, and you realize that the words printed in newspapers and online will never, ever capture the reality of what it means to be a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian in Israel, consider becoming an atheist instead. You’ll find this label fits a little bit more comfortably, but only a little bit.

If you want to be a writer, take an English class in university and request a note taker so you don’t have to read your professor’s lips and take notes at the same time. Your note taker sends you notes after each lecture and then, of course, because he’s the first attractive man to serve you in some way, and because your insecurities can’t reconcile that you don’t owe him anything in return, you fall in love with him and you let him seduce you. It doesn’t end well. So when you go home for Christmas, and your parents and teachers ask you how your note taker is, you change the subject. The words are too painful to articulate because he’s not your “note taker” anymore, he’s become the antagonist in the story of a tragedy, the story of a girl who is learning to hate herself because of the man who was hired to make her life easier.

After you’ve majored in Russian literature, get a master’s in it. And do your master’s in London, the loneliest city in the world, where you’ll be forced by penury and no friends to strangle yourself with constant self-deprecating thoughts. This is a great exercise for the writer to be.

Plus, an MA in Russian literature is a fantastic opportunity for you to realize how much you hate academia, the study of literature, and other people’s thoughts. You say that you’d rather die than write a dissertation on a man whose been dead for almost two hundred years, an essay that nobody will read, except your supervisor.

As you battle through your master’s year, you resent the erudite vocabulary that professors rely on in order to promote their intelligence. It’s obnoxious and difficult to understand, but you have to try to write that way too now. You have to state that “it is your contention …” when introducing your thesis; you change your spellings from Canadian to British; and you must leave all your War and Peace excerpts in their original Russian and French. Automatically, this means that nobody in your family or any of your friends can read your essay, and so you look at your paper with disgust because it’s echoed knowledge and a fraudulent understanding. This is not who I am, you tell yourself. I am just a pretender relying on a formula that will only isolate my writing from the rest of the reading world.

When you graduate with your master’s and quit academia altogether, move back into your mom’s house and get a job selling shoes to rich women and celebrities. And when your clients and your extended family members remind you that you should get a better job because you’re smart, respond with someday. And someday you will, but now, you’re just not ready.

You’re not ready because you’re lost. You’re so lost and you have no idea if you’ll ever find your place in the world. And so you feel more emotions than you realized you were capable of: heartbreak, frustration, anger, hopelessness. You realize that being self-destructive never works in the long run, however, and that you need a form of creative self-expression. So you pick up the pen and you produce the angriest essay in the world and the pain slips out onto the page from the tip of your pen in a thread of blue ink. And after it’s done, you feel better. You’ve regurgitated the hurt from your heart and translated it into words; it’s no longer a part of you, but rather, you’ve given it life.

So one day, you just realize what was missing from you, and of course, it’s been the thing that has been inside of you all this time, the thing that other people saw and pointed out, but that you always denied yourself because any time it asked to be explored, you always aggressively pushed it away.

Deny yourself no longer. The fear is half the fun.

About the Author

Sophie Narod

Sophie Narod is a writer based in Toronto. She has a BA in Russian Language and Literature from the University of Toronto and an MA in East European Studies from University College London. Born in Lyon, France, and raised in Montreal and Toronto, Sophie has also spent extended periods of time in Eastern Canada, Russia, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Lithuania, and her writing is heavily influenced by her travels and observations of other cultures.