by Carol McMillan
At a Bellingham gathering a few years ago someone asked me, “Are you a writer?”
“Hmmm,” I pondered. How to answer?
I know I’m an anthropologist; I have degrees hanging on my wall and I have been employed for many years on the basis of those degrees. Society has stamped me across the forehead with its approval: “Anthropologist”! Easy answer; why didn’t she ask me that? “Are you an anthropologist?” “Sure!” But—am I a writer?
I wrote my first poem when I was seven or eight:
“When the moon dances in the snow
Where do all the birdies go?
To the tops of all the trees
‘till morning breezes
Rock their leaves.”
It was illustrated. Mom kept it.
I started journaling at age ten. I have three boxes in my basement filled with decades of daily writings. At ten I mostly wrote about playing animals with Harriet Hohmeyer and watching Maverick on TV, but those were the vital events in the life of a ten-year-old. Perhaps the content of my journals has become more varied over the years, but the compulsion to write has remained unchanged.
I have taken few, if any, courses in writing or in English since high school. I do not have degrees declaring me to be a writer. Society has issued no forehead stamps proclaiming me as such. I have never been employed as a writer. Am I a writer? The question remained.
My next poem of note was written in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in Girl Scout camp, at age 13. The ten-plus stanzas have been lost, but I remember the first stanza:
“The windswept pine tree,
Beneath the clouds in
One of the camp counselors, Cricket, asked if I would make her a copy (by hand, of course, before copy machines existed) so that she would have it when I was famous one day. Needless to say, I was very flattered. After all, I simply wrote; that’s what I did. No one ever had judged my writing before as good or bad. (Maybe Cricket, wherever she is, still has a copy. Do you think I’d be able to track her down on Facebook?)
Today I write. . . and write . . . and write. Mostly poetry. I process my emotions by writing. I document my life by writing. Two summers ago I rafted the Grand Canyon. Beautiful, harrowing, a life-long memory. It resulted in a book, White Water, Red Walls (available at Village Books, if you should feel inclined to check it out). Self-published, but published. And I’ve earned enough from its sales to slightly more than cover the costs of publication. So I guess I’ve now earned money as a writer. Do I qualify as a “professional”? That seems a stretch.
I just finished taking two classes on narrative prose writing from Laura Kalpakian. Wonderful! The feedback from Laura and from other excellent writers in the group has helped me learn to ask myself the appropriate questions about my writing. So now can I say that I’ve studied writing?
When I write I call upon my muse. I believe in muses. Especially for poems. When a poem leaps out of the infinite ether of the Universe and lands in my fingers, I simply watch as the poem writes itself. Sometimes I have no idea where the poem is going and its ending arrives as a surprise! Can I claim the poem as my own? Did I actually write it? Or did some unknown essence or spirit use my hand as I observed the gift? “Hmmmm”, again.
I’ve decided! I’ve figured it out. Am I a writer? Definitely! How do I know? Because I write. I’ve always written. When 9/11 happened and I watched the planes flying into the towers, even before the last plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field, I left my house. I drove to Safeway and bought rice, beans, canned soup, two packages of pens and two reams of paper. Necessities for my existence. Food and writing, they sustain me. So, yes, I’m a writer. Because I must write.
Author Bio: CAROL MCMILLAN, Ph.D., is an anthropologist who has ventured across Africa with an entomology expedition, lived with free-ranging rhesus monkeys, and worked with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation’s language preservation program. Carol’s poetry has been published in several anthologies. She is a member of several Bellingham poetry groups, reads at local open mics, is the co-host of Creekside Open Mic, and is a 2013 recipient of the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Merit Award. Her book, White Water, Red Walls, documents in poetry, paintings, and photographs a rafting journey down the Grand Canyon. And, yes, she is a writer.