I am a writer. If you knew how long it’s taken me to say those words aloud and believe them, you might wonder, or feel pity, or catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror.
1968: For my 7th grade history class, I write a story about how early humans had learned to harness fire. It involves a love story between a boy and girl about my age, and ends with some sweet cliché like, “they brought light to the heart of darkness.” My teacher writes at the end, “Beautiful. You should be a writer.”
1972: I’m a junior in high school, infected with Romantic notions of everything, from love to nature to art. My parents have divorced, my mother is fearful, depressed and working two jobs, and I’ve lost two friends, one to drowning, another to a bridge abutment in one of those terrible after-graduation crashes that annually claim the young. In my notebook, I write: “I’d like to be a writer, but I haven’t suffered enough.”
1976: For a British Novel class in college, I write an essay on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. My teacher writes at the end, “Beautiful. You should be a writer.”
1985: I’m in the midst of my doctoral studies in literature. In a journal I write, “I bought this notebook a year ago because I want to be a writer. But the pages have been blank…because I’m afraid. I might not be any good. I might be mediocre. But as long as the pages are blank, I can still believe in the possibility. If I commit myself to paper, I might have to stare my failure in the face.”
It pains me now to read those fearful words undercutting such clear desire. I see it so often in my students, too, that need for perfection and approval that makes everything they do disappoint them. In the years that followed that entry, I finished my Ph.D. and became a writer of sorts. I published scholarly essays on works by other writers, like Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and Joseph Conrad. I became a fine teacher and a skilled researcher; I became a minor expert in my field. But that wasn’t the kind of writer my teachers had meant; it wasn’t the kind of writer I dreamed of becoming in high school, or college, or graduate school. I knew I had more gifts to offer.
Skip to 1999. Yes, it took me that long. My mother died on February 19. My father died two weeks later. And suddenly there it was: mortality is real. If I was ever going to write, I needed to start now. I’d long harbored the thought of going back to Kansas where I’d grown up, to visit the thirteen addresses of my childhood. My mother had recorded them all in my baby book, and I’d carried the list for decades thinking, here’s my first book. But for decades, I hadn’t started. Now, my parents’ dying hadn’t made me fearless, but it made me determined. I wouldn’t let fear stop me.
Timing can be everything. Just when I’d made up my mind to finally write, my sister sent me a gift. She’d come across our parents’ home movies among my mother’s things, and she’d had them transferred to DVDs.
In grainy, saturated colors, my life in the sixties rolled by. Me in my Brownie uniform, my sisters and I opening Christmas gifts. And then the scene that reminded me of who I could be when I set my mind to something. I was 8—well past the time, I thought, when I should have learned to ride a bike. But my father hadn’t gotten around to helping me and I was tired of waiting. So one summer day, I took my sister’s bike to our back yard, straddled the bar, put one foot on a pedal, stood up, and started to roll. Before I could pedal a second time, I fell over. I got up. Tried again. Pedaled two or three times and fell over. Got up, tried again, fell over. All afternoon, I fell and got up, again and again and again. And all afternoon, I practiced and got better, and finally I could ride. I could ride in wild and wobbly circles around the yard.
My sister and I put on a circus that night for our parents, and though I hadn’t remembered this part, my father brought his camera. Now, there on the DVD was a little girl wearing a plaid shirt, riding her bike like the wind.
I kept the image of that little girl in front of me when I finally made my trip back to Kansas and when I started writing my book. I knew I had to be willing to fail, get up, and try again. This time, I also took a deep, brave breath and asked for help. I hired writers to work with me and read my early drafts. And I can tell you now those drafts were bad. But I kept at it, knowing as I’d known when I taught myself to ride, that I’d get better if I just kept trying. And I did.
My Ruby Slippers: the Road Back to Kansas was published on March 1, 2011. One of thousands of books that came out last year. Nobody knows what a victory it’s been for me, what a thrill it’s been to take it out on tour. Except maybe for that little girl who’s still out there somewhere, riding her bike like the wind. And now, you know, too.
Tracy Seeley grew up in Kansas, but eventually migrated west. She currently lives in Oakland, California and teaches at the University of San Francisco, where she also co-directs the Center for Teaching Excellence. She has published scholarly essays, literary essays, and a memoir, My Ruby Slippers: the Road Back to Kansas. She lives with her husband, filmmaker Frederick Marx, and has two grown smart and witty daughters. She’s proud to say she’s a writer.