I am an imposter. At least that’s what I call myself sometimes. I am not a formally trained writer – unless you count the English course I completed sophomore year of college. That semester I wrote a riveting expository on the music of Barry Manilow. My prose was as deep as my limited skill and a Radio Shack all-in-one stereo allowed.
I don’t recall anything I learned in that class. I don’t remember the instructor either. It’s plausible my initiation into the writing world was facilitated by a graduate student who preferred the Grateful Dead.
Yet I do remember other things. I remember my parents buying my brothers and me a subscription to a series of Dr. Seuss books when we were young. Each month a new volume would arrive in the mail, its hard cover and firm spine feeling substantial in my hands. Theodor Geisel’s whimsical characters didn’t move me as much as the measured rhythm of his verse.
I remember the nice ladies at the Selma Library. Mary Louise Cleveland was the head librarian. I didn’t know what to make of the tremor that revealed itself when she spoke, but her smile always welcomed me. Martha Starr processed my requests with kindness, allowing me to check out as many books as my small arms could carry.
My fourth-grade teacher, Dorothy Shipman, instilled a drive for focus and excellence. She would stand over our classroom, expecting concentration and silence as we demonstrated our cursive writing skills.
The goal was to loop our pencils with perfection. Erasers were not allowed. If we made one mistake, we had to grab a fresh sheet of paper and start over.
Dawn Dutto, my fifth grade teacher, taught me the essentials of grammar and punctuation. A sentence is not a sentence without a subject and a predicate. Anything less is a mess.
In sixth grade, the stakes were higher. I began to build my critical-thinking skills.
One day in class, I stretched my arm toward the ceiling to ask yet another question, an uncontrollable habit that afflicted students like me.
I don’t remember the topic which piqued my interest, but I’ll never forget Nora Rylee’s response: “Danielle, think before you ask a question. You likely know the answer already.”
It’s one thing to be curious. It’s another to be infatuated with your own voice. To this day, I remain humbly challenged by my teacher’s guidance.
My high school English teachers established the bedrock for any artistic ambition. Catherine Wolrath affirmed my creative potential. Merrily Hearn exposed me to classic literature by assigning readings from the modern American and English canons.
The foundation had been laid over many years. Yet my writing evolved unintentionally.
As a nursing student, I became proficient in the use of choppy sentence fragments to relay important facts, a style customarily used in medical documentation.
Later, I handed over my master’s thesis to a professor who automatically questioned whether I should have used an editor before submission.
“Nurses can’t write”, she told me.
I asked her to give me a chance. Two weeks later, she handed back my manuscript with an apology.
During this same period, I worked alongside a nursing assistant who tended her patients with unparalleled skill and compassion. When her husband died, she asked me to write his obituary. I didn’t know the man, but I knew how to ask questions. My words were printed in her church newsletter.
Looking back, the sentences were always coming. I verbalized make-believe stories as a child, phrasing my thoughts as if I was dictating the chapters of a book.
When I was a young woman, I wrote letters on fun stationery and posted private thoughts in my journal. With the advent of e-mail, I sent idea-infused messages to friends.
As my writing continued, I found a few mentors along the way. Mostly, I went at it alone. Some words stuck. Others flew into the wind, a maelstrom of twigs and dust.
Through it all, I kept those poorly executed essays from my college days. In one of the pieces, I wrote about my mother. When she died, I retrieved the old sentences from a file and shared my teenage voice at her funeral.
To be an imposter is to live a lie. To build your art – your work – from the inner place that drives your story? That is a person who walks in truth.
Danielle R. Shapazian is a nurse and writer who lives in Fresno. She can be reached at Danielle.Shapazian@sbcglobal.net.