Big thanks to contributor Julie Carrick Dalton for introducing us to today’s guest, Rheea Mukherjee!
Rheea’s debut novel, The Body Myth, recently sold to Unnamed Press and will be published in February 2019! She holds an MFA from California College of the Arts. Her fiction and non-fiction has been published in several publications including Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Out of Print, Cleaver Magazine, Kitaab, and Bengal Lights.
She’s with us today to talk about an issue that, once upon a time, tested her ability to convey language and threatened her dream of becoming a writer.
The Writer Who Can’t Write
I suspect most writers knew they were meant to write before they actually did. This knowledge could have manifested in a bunch of ways. It might have been a passing idea: I think I might be good with words. It might have been a nagging voice: hey you, you’re supposed to be a writer, so write! It might have been a quick thought that was rapidly covered in self-doubt: Maybe, I can write? Nope, you suck, remember?
Or maybe you were one of the more confident ones, aware from an early age that you were meant to write and then did so without an ounce of self-doubt. (Can we meet?)
I was 14 when I first thought I could, maybe, possibly, write. But all the evidence to this was severely contradictory.
I am a third-culture kid. I did schooling in the U.S till the 4th grade and then moved to India where I finished high school. I was back in America for college and graduate school. Living in two cultures has blessed me with all sorts of empathy and boosted my writing imagination. So far so good right?
But see, back when I was in high school in India, the only exams I did well in were English and Biology. I failed most other subjects. I owe this to learning in a very rigid Indian school system while simultaneously dealing with massive cultural changes.
However, at the time, there was only one reason for my failings: I sucked, totally and completely. Why else would I fail this hard?
As a young adult, I realized that my childhood instinct was right. I was good at writing, or rather communicating a moment, time, or idea in a text.
I really was.
But the technicality of writing was something my brain did not cooperate with. And here’s where I tell you the truth.
I can’t spell. I literally cannot. I am moderately dyslexic, so I can’t see basic errors and many of my words read upside down or are missing letters even though they appear correct to me. Somehow, I had gotten away with this (via blissful ignorance and teachers who never really called me out on it) until I finished high school.
Then I turned 18 and went to college in Colorado. My 101 college composition classes were giving me a C Minus for a grade. A total hit to my evolving identity. The one ‘talent’ I thought I had was average at best.
I still didn’t have a grasp of how bad the situation was. I had all the ideas, I even had sentences that could dazzle, explore and perform, but they were riddled with very basic mistakes and made-up words. I legitimately thought ‘mying’ was a word for 4 straight years that were well into adulthood.
This caused a vicious anxiety: there was a big thumping need to write and live through writing but I was too scared to put it out there.
Flashforward to 2018. I have published many stories, non-fiction articles, opinion pieces, and have a debut novel coming out in February in the U.S.A.
I co-run a company (Write Leela Write) that develops content and it’s been running successfully for more than four years. But it’s not because I have a story with some dramatic change, some miracle cure that got me to a place where I could embrace what I wanted to do and carve out space for me to thrive.
The truth is that I just kept embracing new levels of discomfort every day. I had to develop new abilities. The ability to ask for help from a strong copy-editor when I needed it. The ability to spend twenty extra minutes going through every sentence, even for a Facebook post. The ability to be okay with ‘editing’ that post for errors over 48 hours of having posted it. The ability to ask a writer friend (thanks Manjiri!) to copy check this very essay for me.
The ability to tell editors, clients, and peers what I can do best and what I fail at. The ability to tell them: I am so excited about what I wrote here, but can you look at it for creativity first and then I’ll do a copy check? It’s not like all editors and clients are open to this, but it hasn’t stopped me from being transparent about where I shine and where I’ll make a grammar expert weep till midnight.
And finally, it’s the ability to be okay with my weird usage of punctuation when I write informally.
Yes, of course, I’ve gotten better. I am better at knowing the types of mistakes I make and therefore better at catching them. Spellcheck has literally facilitated my career. And I’ve been really lucky.
You may have that path you want to try out. You may have that gut knowledge about something you are meant to do. But you might stay far away from it because you think you fail at a very basic part of it.
Here’s the thing, the cliche is true. You can do anything you want to. You can do anything you want to as long as you are transparent, open to learning, and willing to ask for help when you need it.
My name is Rheea, and I am a writer. English is my first language. And I legitimately thought the word ‘mying’ existed until I was 25.
Have you struggled with something that other writers seem (seem) to find easy? How have you compensated for your perceived writerly weaknesses? What have you achieved after battling back your own doubt?