Monday, December 5, 2011

My First Time: David Harris Ebenbach

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is David Harris Ebenbach.  His poetry has appeared in, among other places, Beloit Poetry Journal, Agni, The Iowa Review, Subtropics, and Mudfish.  His book of short stories, Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press), won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the GLCA New Writer’s Award.  Recently awarded fellowships to the MacDowell Colony and the Vermont Studio Center and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council, Ebenbach has a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College.  Find out more at

My First Day as a Writer

It was frustration, maybe even desperation, that drove me to writing.  I was six or seven years old.  I was also full of stories—stories that were mostly about Smurfs and stuffed animals and space warfare; but I was a kid, and they were stories I really wanted to tell.  The problem was I didn’t know how.  Like a lot of kids that age, my idea of a story was something with a few words and a lot of pictures, and my models were the Minott brothers—my best friend Nicol and his older brother Alex—who lived down the block and were already showing signs of being gifted visual artists, pouring a lot of talent into their high-action comic strips.  I drew comics, too, but without any of that talent—and so I couldn’t exactly express what I wanted to express.  That grated on me.  And so the day came when, after struggling and struggling to draw things the way they looked in my head, I finally gave up and decided to just write the story down first and worry about the pictures later.  It was pretty easy.  After all, I had written stories before, in school, though I had never thought of them as being complete without pictures.  To my surprise, though, on this day I liked what I wrote, a lot, even without illustrations—and, more importantly, I liked writing it.

That was the turning point.  It’s not that I never drew again—but on that day I realized, for the first time, that my most natural, comfortable mode of engaging with the world was not going to be visual art—it was going to be words.

Writing is not, of course, the perfect art form.  In fact, it has a lot of disadvantages; it’s much less concrete and sensory than other art forms, for example—just try describing music so that someone else can really hear it—and it can only do one thing (one word) at a time, whereas other forms can hit you with a lot of different things simultaneously.  No—writing is not perfect.  But it suits me.  It fits me.

I think art is partly about finding your fit.  I often meet painters, for example, who just think in terms of line and color and always have, dancers who talk with their hands and by moving their bodies, musicians who go through their day hearing rhythms in the world that I don’t, writers who have to use words to make sense of anything.  These artists are generally able to express themselves in other ways, just like a lot of folks can shift passably into a second language in a pinch—but there’s a big difference between a language you can speak and a language that’s a part of who you are, that allows you to talk about absolutely anything you need to talk about.  A lot of us gravitate to one art form or another because in that art form we’ve found the mode of expression that’s most deeply our own.

And so that was the day—a day that started out feeling like a failure, actually—when I began to settle into writing as a lifelong vocation, and not just a vocation but also, more broadly, a way of being in the world.  I do still struggle to express myself, to make words do what I want them to do.  But it’s a good struggle.  It’s my struggle.  It’s who I am.

1 comment:

  1. This forum has a great concept, and I love David's thoughts about finding the medium that fits you. I think that one of the truest things about words as medium is how interactive they are. The words do not become the story till the reader reads them. It's true that a song played in the forest would still make a sound. But a story wouldn't.