Pushing the barriers of language

Monday, November 11, 2019 - 5:48pm

.

Design by Jonathan Walsh

There is a bar in Berlin, hidden in one of my favorite neighborhoods, that I would have overlooked if someone had not pointed it out to me. The lighting was dim, not because the owners were trying to set a mood, but because the bar had no lights. The chairs all looked like they had come from dumpster diving adventures. It was always crowded, and it reeked of tobacco. The only thing noteworthy, was a blue neon sign, that in English read “I lie that I am an artist.”  

I remember chuckling as I read the sign out loud. But for me, the phrase would be, “I lie that I am a writer.” I say that I am a writer, but this phrase does not roll off my tongue with ease. It feels like a lie because still, something deep within me has not come to terms with the title: writer. I do not feel like I have earned the right to call myself a writer. 

I had multiple journals as a child. I wrote in the margins of my school books. I have a box full of sticky notes with ideas of things I want to write. I wrote during class and on my commute to school. I write long letters to my friends. But even so, I have never felt like a writer. 

Am I a writer because, within my friend group, I am known for writing long and weirdly candid Instagram captions? Or am I a writer only when I have something published? Or does that something have to be published by someone with a fancy New York office? 

I have always been at odds with my writing, often failing to find my voice in the words I type across the page. I am always afraid to write. And yet, here you are reading my words, maybe even enjoying them? 

When people ask why I study French when I already know English and Spanish I shrug off the question with a soft smile. Then when people started asking why I was adding German to the list, I began to wonder. I think the truth of it all is that I am still seeking to find my voice. 

I grew up with two languages: Spanish and English. The rules that govern these two are so different that I often get lost between them. Spanish is notorious for long sentences that take up more than one page. English, not so much. I remember the bright red letters at the top of my essay from an old teacher, reading: “You push the barriers of the English language too far” and “Your ideas get lost in a swarm of subordinate clauses.” 

With every sentence I write, I remember these words. They are permanently etched in my mind. They are a condemnation, a decree that I would never be a writer. 

For a long time, I worked hard to erase Spanish from my mind so that I could write well and in native-English — something I am not so sure I have learned to do. I have learned to push away the words that come naturally to me and, by doing so, I began erasing the memories of my childhood. In choosing English I began rewriting my history, writing over the Spanish. Eventually my dreams, too, are in English. In an attempt to grow into English, I began to bend myself into the acceptable use of the language. 

I think I found peace in the words of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. These are the words that echoed in my mind: 

“There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity.”  

But how would I be able to write about a past that is written in Spanish, I don’t think I could translate the love I had known in Spanish to English. I need to find a way to let both exist at peace with my voice as a writer. 

I don’t think I am any more of a writer now than I was before. I just think I have used Rilke to justify the silent force inside me that wants to write. I am starting to think that what makes you a writer is the choice. The choice that pushes you to keep writing even after rejections. The choice to keep writing through the fear. Maybe I haven’t found the voice that can balance all the parts of who I am, but that doesn’t make the statement “I am a writer” a lie, it just means “I am a writer, and I am still growing.” And I think for now that is enough...