Why I Write: Rae Pagliarulo

I try to think about the motivation to become a writer – as though one day, you are not, and the next… Or as if there’s a path, one we set foot and say, Well, now I’m on my way. It never felt like a decision, to write. The only decisions I ever made related to how seriously I took that inevitable part of my life.

I have notebooks dating back to 7th grade. I was a half-Jew in a Catholic elementary school, with a unibrow, braces, and glasses. My childhood precociousness had quickly morphed into tweeny weirdness. Keeping a journal was the only way I could work through the ugly truth of my universe – that everything revolved around me and everyone was out to get me. Having a written account of the mess felt almost like control. Instead of floating through obscurity, never sure if things were getting better or worse, I had concrete proof – cave drawings, ancient etchings – to prove the weight of my existence. I was here. And it, like, totally sucked.

By high school, the mounting pile of notebooks had shifted from validating security blankets to in-depth reports from the front lines of a new, confounding battlefield. My anxious, analytical mind turned inward. After a day of crazy social interactions, arguments with clergy members, tiffs with girls I thought were my friends, and intense bonding with my new crew – the freaks and weirdos, as it was – writing at the end of the day felt like essential mental maintenance, as well as high-stakes sociological work. If I was going to stand any chance at surviving high school, I needed to understand its delicate ecosystem, make sense of the castes, the cliques. My poems were image-heavy, thinly veiled missives against bullies and nuns. As much dagger as dispatch

College kept a similar theme, with higher levels of self-awareness, and mercifully, lower levels of narcissism. Instead of writing about the peculiarities of my high school bio-dome, the whole world was up for discussion. My notebooks stacked up into soapboxes from which I spoke about women’s societal pressures, the sloppy debauch of frat life, and things I finally learned about firsthand – the precarious handling of first love, first heartbreak, cheating and jealousy and codependence and abuse and obsession. For once, people read my poems and responded, Me, too. How did you know?

What an addicting feeling – to yell into an empty room and finally hear a whisper back. It was the first time writing felt like a conversation. It didn’t have to happen in a vacuum, or in a cave, or from the trenches, or on top of a platform. It could be my way of communicating with the world, making some type of connection

But my release from college came with isolation and writers’ block. My writing teachers and workshop buddies were replaced with bitter coffee shop managers and mean office administrators handing me piles of un-filed papers. I didn’t have it in me to converse with the world. The romance of picking apart and studying my life vanished now that it was incredibly difficult to simply live it.

I kept writing – in ten, fifteen, twenty page word documents, coded with a date and nothing else. Dozens of them. A digital diary about all the ways in which I was failing to live a creative, fulfilling life. I worked, and when I was tired of working, I worked some more. And when I got tired of that, I drank, and I kissed people I shouldn’t have, and left myself absolutely no room for anything – not quiet, not gratitude, not a single blank space in the chaos where I’d finally feel how wrong it all was.

Nothing puts a halt to self-destructive workaholism like a well-timed lay-off. Unemployment left me with an abundance of all that I ran from – silence, time, space to reflect. And in that space, I felt my way back to the pile of notebooks, the cave drawings, the cultural manifestos, the rambling diaries. I chipped away at them, cut and pasted, trimmed and shaped, until I had something resembling an essay. And because I had nowhere else to go for the first time in years, I took the essay to a writing workshop, feeling scared and inadequate and stupid. But I yelled into the dark anyway, and from across the table, I heard it. Faint, but definitely there – Me, too. How did you know? 

And so I became. Not because I worked towards it, or had grand plans or visions. It was simply my becoming, as much as the crook of my nose or the width of my thighs. It was written in me before I wrote it. My proof of life, my expose`, my podium, my exchange, my chronicle, my redemption. A single voice in an empty room.

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About Rae Pagliarulo

Rae Pagliarulo is an MFA Creative Writing Candidate at Rosemont College and Creative Nonfiction Editor for Rathalla Review and Literary Mama. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town Literary Magazine, bedfellows magazine, The Mid, and Philadelphia Stories, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is also the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. She works and lives in Philadelphia.