I still remember the day I was told that I had some talent at writing. I was in the dormitory mailroom to see if my mother had sent me one of the care packages my brother seemed to receive daily at his university.
“Any packages for me?” I asked, unable to tamp down the pity underlying my hope.
“Nope,” said the student worker, who had probably already devoured the contents of the parcel I’d been dreaming about. “You do have a certified letter from the president, though.”
We’ll skip the part about my feelings when I learned that it was not the president of the United States, but rather the president of the university who had sent me a letter. While a dramatically less executive branch, I could only assume that it contained a sternly worded notification that my cafeteria allowance had been depleted again. I ripped open the envelope and fished out the letter with its embossed university insignia. I read the words skeptically as anyone would who routinely crash official campus functions just for the free food. The letter detailed a writing assessment I had taken a month prior. It went on to say that my essay had been chosen for the Presidential Award of Distinction.
I let my hands fall to my thighs with the letter still in their grasp while I looked up at the ceiling, straining to recall the essay and the day I had written it. It had been a busy day — busier than usual between an early-morning exam, my usual course load, and the hours I put in at my campus job. I’d straggled back to my dorm room to sleep for a couple of hours before the next onslaught of obligations. Somewhere between REM cycles, I was rattled awake by my residential adviser, who was yelling something into my ear about a compulsory writing exercise that was concluding in an hour.
I hustled down the stairs of my floor, my pockets empty of all supplies, calling over my shoulder: “What’s the prompt?” His voice chased me, “Whatever you want.”
That was the beginning, the accidental and delirious first step of writing whatever I wanted. There were deviations along the way, the formulaic and unremarkable corporate pitches of my early career, but ultimately I landed back at the place I had started: writing from the gut.
As my writing found a larger audience through newspapers and blogs, it was no longer met with presidential approval. I received comments and emails laced with hatred and vile disregard for the toil and heart that went into each piece. I endeavored to stop reading the hate mail, even when it was hard to ignore because it would arrive to the mailbox of my home, masquerading as personal notes. For every few people to soldier me on, there were plenty more telling me to quit. Every so often I wondered if I should turn to assignment work, reporting only the facts, shirking opinion and imagination.
There were always other writers to look up to — those whose work could shine light and nudge me back to the writing place I wanted to be. Those were writers whose stories of pain could make you feel like you walked into a glass sliding door, whose tales of triumph felt like getting a trophy yourself, and whose opinions can upend your own. These are the people who remind those of us to keep on trying.
Some of these types were slain in the office of their Paris weekly satire publication, Charlie Hebdo, this past week. They were hand-picked, targeted for their artistic creations, and executed brutally before their co-workers. They had nerve — too much their killers would say — and they poured that mettle into work that illuminated their readers through satire, an art form that has been educating the world since publications began. They wrote on and drew on, no matter the criticism, no matter the blowback, not in service of the highborn abstraction of freedom of the press, but in practice of plain freedom.
They should be remembered by us as those who spoke up, when others did not, and as those who did whatever they wanted.