June 3, 2021 § 12 Comments
By Alizabeth Worley
The atmosphere in which I fell in love with writing—and with essays—was toxic.
My high school English teacher was a ghost writer, literally sitting down at the computer where a student had been working, then writing or rewriting a whole poem or essay or story. Every year, he won dozens of awards under his students’ names.
As a high school student, this literary surrogacy was debilitating. I did not feel like I was a good writer, not really, because he had overwritten so much of what I worked on. I do not believe that my classmates felt confidence in their writing either.
One of my classmates had won an award for her poem, and she was invited to read it at an award banquet. This teacher, the same who had overwritten so many of her words, was helping her rehearse it out loud. It was painful; they said lines back and forth over and over, he in his way, she in hers, while he became more and more frustrated.
Finally, he paused, reading the poem silently and looking into himself, as if to gather his frustration and smooth it out. Then he repeated one line of her poem—I still remember it, one arm hangs like a broken wing—and said, “Such a good line.”
She said, “That’s because you wrote it.”
He said, “I know.”
Now, I can’t believe that I was so blind to his quiet contempt, that I said and felt nothing for her at the time.
The atmosphere in which I fell in love with writing was toxic, and invasive. He read my journals: some of my friends had given him their journals to read, and when I finally did, he said to me, “It’s about time.”
We played games like “The Line Game,” where students were told to step up to a line taped to the carpet if they had been through certain life experiences: therapy, eating disorders, bullying. When he asked if anyone had done drugs, he put his toe on the line. He said, “I think I’d have to say yes to this.” But he was talking about pornography, not drugs. We just didn’t know that.
I told him everything: about the older boy who touched me when I was younger, about the classmates who called me stinky and freak in elementary school, about the turmoil that led to my parents separation and the divorce that had just come through my junior year. It was everything I never knew I wanted, to let out the secrets and shames I had never thought to share.
It was everything I wanted, but it was also everything he wanted: to be serenaded with the remains and reshapings of pain.
One of my classmates once said to me, he makes me wish I had a drinking problem, as if that was the best gift she could offer, the surest way to sustain his engagement.
For a while, it was everything he wanted.
The atmosphere in which I learned to love writing was toxic and invasive and ultimately abusive. The first time he hugged me, I wrote about it in my journal, which he read and then asked me to pen over or shred finely enough that no one else could see—people will get the wrong idea, he said, he said exactly that, and I really believed him.
Soon enough, I discovered the easiest way to erase my records: soak the paper in water, then let the words pill off as I scrubbed two folds together. Soon enough, I stopped writing about my life.
One day, he said, maybe I’d write about all this—the phone calls and trips to hotels and nights in empty parking lots—when there was less at stake. He believed that I wanted his burning, really believed it in his heart, as if he had no other choice. But even then, when he said I might write about all this, as if I would defend it, I remember thinking: no.
I had fallen in love with writing, not him, and he had mistaken the two.
I had fallen in love with words by Galway Kinnel and Toni Morrison, and then so many others. There, in his classroom, long before he said he loved me, I had pulled a freshly printed sheet off a stack of papers sitting on a desk and read “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle. Reading it, I was as moved as I had ever been, and though I would revise my desires in time, right then I thought: if I could do only one thing with my life, this would be it.
Don’t let him rob you twice.
So much of what I love was bound up in that situation: writing, yes, but also theater and film and art and school itself. There are streets and freeway exits I avoid because of their association with that time in my life. There are songs I don’t listen to, and movies I don’t watch.
But when it comes to the core tenets of who I am, I tell myself, over and over again:
Don’t let him rob you twice.
And so, I write.
Alizabeth Worley has an MFA in nonfiction from BYU and was a 2016 poetry winner of the AWP Intro Journals Project. Her essays, poetry and illustrated works have been published or are forthcoming in Guernica, Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Tar River Poetry, Hobart, and elsewhere. You can find more of her work at alizabethworley.com.