When I was in school at UH-Hilo, I wrote for the campus newspaper, whose office was my main hangout during the school day when I wasn’t in classes. I declared upon first being assigned a staff position (editorials page editor) that I wasn’t a newswriter, which in retrospect seems like a stupid thing to announce. I could really have learned some good stuff if I’d been willing to write news, but I was sorta focused on school, and chasing stories didn’t seem like the best use of my time.
So mostly i wrote a weekly column (it was a weekly paper) and copy-edited everything even though that wasn’t my job. The weekly column was just whatever was on my mind that week. I wrote stuff about circus animals, an instructor I observed crying in the library one day, masturbation, politics, sports, music, and relationships. The editor in chief gave me license to write anything I wanted, a freedom that almost never really exists in the real world when writing for pay.
Between that and the writing I did for my coursework, I was always working on something, although I didn’t yet have the discipline to write every day whether I had anything pressing or not. Mostly, I was driven by deadlines, something that continues today in my assigned writing but not my personal writing.
I’ve said this before but I’ll probably keep saying it until I die: the most valuable thing (besides my college degree, I guess) I gained while at school in Hilo was the experience of being appreciated. The newspaper staff liked me and valued what I brought to the paper and to the newsroom. The people in the campus ministry I belonged to, despite my being so different from everyone, loved me fiercely even when I intentionally made it very, very difficult to do so. And among my fellow English majors, I was sorta a middle-of-the-circle guy, instead of a fringe-dweller as I’d been pretty much my whole life as a student. For the first time in my life in school, I didn’t feel like I had to act a certain inauthentic way to gain acceptance, and I didn’t feel the need to shun acceptance in rebellion against inauthenticity (yes, it’s been a struggle forever). I was just me, and what a gift it was to be valued that way.
Somebody (not me, because I don’t have that kind of social initiative) would always start a study group when midterms came around, and we’d schedule sessions in the library, and if I couldn’t make it for whatever reason, they would reschedule. In class discussion, people wanted to know what I thought, and classmates often asked me to look at their papers in progress. And if I was having lunch in the cafeteria, I didn’t have to worry about finding someone to eat with, because I’d just find a table and people would join me. What the heck, right?
There was this guy, a non-traditional student named Johh, somewhat older than most of us working on English degrees, who was the only one of my classmates I was aware of who’d written stuff for money. He was good, and he often complimented me on whatever I’d just published in the paper. Praise from him was special to me, because I knew when he said nice things he wasn’t just talking about my opinions but also my writing, which of course is more important to me.
He was also the play-by-play radio announcer for all the UH-Hilo baseball games (or maybe it was the Hilo Stars, the Hawaii Winter Baseball League team we had, or maybe it was both), which was pretty cool too. He called a good game.
One day, he asked me how something I’d been working on was coming along. I can’t remember if it was a paper for a class, a column for the newspaper, or something else, perhaps a creative piece for one of my directed studies.
I said something about how much I was struggling with it. It sounded so artificial to me, and I was stiving for realism. Or at least believability.
He gave a friendly laugh, and said, “Mitchell, everything we write is artifice. Everything. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t get crippled by that.”
He was right, of course. This writing thing we do is maddening because it’s not a natural thing. Some of it is illusion; we use what we know of language to manipulate emotion or create something that was never there. We try to shape opinion, or simply report the facts of some event, but we do it beginning with a blank page, and we do it linearly, one letter at a time, and we do it without really using any of our senses (except sight for reading, of course0. That’s not the way the world happens, but we try to convince people that it does. All artifice. Most of us who are good at writing learned that when we were young: that we could fake our way through almost any written assignment if we wrote well. Write with authoritative enough a voice, and people think you’re an authority. Or choose some other voice and create some other reality for the reader, including the reality that you know what you’re doing even when you don’t.
John is still in Hilo, a writer for Hawaii Island’s only daily newspaper, and I had occasion to thank him recently for his words of encouragement. He uttered the truth that played a huge part in setting my writing free, and althogh I still struggle for authenticity, I know that it’s all filtered through the reality of creating something where something doesn’t really exist, and it remains some of the most valuable advice I’ve ever received.