How my obsession with writing has evolved and endured.
An “About Me” poster from my kindergarten days claims that at one point I wanted to be an Olympic ice skater, but I can’t remember a time when I wanted to be anything other than a writer. All of my memories point to that lofty ideal, to a stack of slim volumes of my writing that now lies gathering dust on a shelf in my parents’ house.
As a kid, I read about teenage girls becoming knights, about young wizards and Native American women and kingdoms real and imagined. I loved the way images sprang into my head unbidden, how pages of writing could construct cities and human beings that seemed real and inextricably lovable.
I don’t know what bridges the stretch of current from bookworm to writer, except that loving something eventually means you want to make it your own. Someone else’s story can never fully belong to you, but that will never stop a book lover from trying to carve out his or her own place within a narrative.
I started writing when I was eight, and all of my early stories were thinly veiled versions of my favorite books. The earliest were diaries of Native American girls modeled after the many Dear America books I read. I was obsessed with Native American history; the dedication in one of my earliest books, scrawled in obstinate pencil, reads “To all the Native Americans who died fighting for their country.” I believed that storytelling was the best way to honor truth and inspire empathy; my second-grade self and I still have a lot in common.
I wrote in tiny spiral notebooks only slightly larger than my palms. After finishing each story I would rip out the pages, staple them together, and “bind” them in collage paper. I would carefully wrap the front and back in thin colors, convinced that this made each book seem real. I eventually branched out from faux diaries, wrote about the fraught relationship between a cat named Alexander the Great and his new housemate, a dog named Napoleon. I wrote stories for my friends as birthday presents and laughed when they asked if I was sure I wanted to give them away. I was so certain I would always have stories to spare. In fifth grade I had a shelf in our class library for my slim tomes with a little sign-out sheet I always forgot to keep track of.
The only time you don’t have to worry about how much writers make for a living is when you’re in elementary school. After that, the world seems to close in little by little. When I was nine, I told my mother that I would buy her an apartment in Paris when I became a wealthy author. I thought writing was the best job in the entire world, and I imagined that the monetary rewards had to match up. My parents, who knew far better, just prayed I would wake up one day and decide to go into a STEM field.
Dreams can evolve even as they endure. When I transferred to an unfriendly Catholic middle school in sixth grade, I hid in the library during recess and stopped writing my own stories. Maybe it was easier to hide in someone else’s narrative; maybe I just ran out of ideas. Whatever the reason, I switched from writing fiction to writing poetry. I wrote limericks for different school functions; I wrote a set of rhymes about everyone in my eighth grade class for our graduation dinner. In high school I became obsessed with photojournalism, with trying to use images to tell a story instead of using words to sketch out a scene. My foray into photojournalism marked my only real departure from writing; though I still wanted to write something, someday, I tried to stop wanting to be a writer.
Because wanting to be a writer was exhausting. I grew up in Silicon Valley in a family of Indian engineers. No one knew what it meant to make a living as a writer — no one really believed it could be done. Well-meaning relatives were always telling me that the smart thing to do was get a real career. That writing was something to dabble in on the side. “Look at Khaled Hosseini!” They would point out. “Look at Abraham Varghese! Doctors and writers!” Ah, that we all could be so blessed. But most doctors won’t produce anything quite like A Thousand Splendid Suns, and I should not practice internal medicine.
When I was a junior in college, I took a personal essay writing class that introduced me to creative nonfiction. I wrote like someone possessed, staying up till 3 a.m. because I wanted to rework a sentence till it cut into me. I fell in love with writing again. I also had a professor who informed me not only that I could write, but that I should. It was something no one had ever told me, the kind of push a young woman of color often needs when she has spent too long thinking of herself as damningly, blessedly invisible.
Dreams shift. They ebb, they flow, they change. They are subject to our love and our fears. I love few things more than a powerful story, and I fear never being able to create one. At twenty-three, I am constantly being told that what I want to do and where I see myself are likely going to be radically different than where I’ll end up. And maybe that will be. My idea of what it means to be a writer has changed and broadened, and I’m still trying to figure out how to make a living from a profession that sometimes seems impossible. These are the moments in which I try very hard not to hate Khaled Hosseini.
But no matter what I go on to do, those collage-papered volumes will live and breathe in the back of my mind, reminding me that some dreams are worth writing for.