Right on Target

by Alyssa Martino 

Recently, I was on a mission, courtesy of the six-week writing "Boot Camp" in which I'd elected to enroll. I was learning not just how to write, but how to establish a routine, set tangible goals, and turn my excuses over on their backs. I’d been writing creative nonfiction since college, but at 23 years old, something kept me back from fully immersing myself. I had insightful stories, I had vivid characters, but did I have the guts to write them down and share them with the world—or better yet, my family and friends?

Then came my first week’s assignment: take a small, incremental step towards feeling more like a “writer.” I had a vision of my ideal writing place, getting situated there in an oversized sweater, chomping on Swedish fish with a pencil behind my ear, soothing music playing from my iPod speakers. Eyeglasses rest on my nose, despite having been told several times by a professional that I have 20/20 vision. Hey, anything to convince myself I fit the part of an author-in-training.

And so, to Target I ventured for items to make this writing life seem a reality. With me I carried a short list of ideas: markers, a white board, craft books, comfy clothes, and snacks.

Target is not my Mecca. No matter how many lists I make or pep talks I give myself, I inevitably become overwhelmed once I enter those long, automatic doors. I choose the only broken shopping cart in the entire store, which wails and screeches as I wander aimlessly through aisles of kitchen appliances I do not need or want. Though I set out to spend my gift card on useful books and stationary, I feel defeated the entire ride home while trying not to finish the bin of variously shaped pretzels now in my passenger seat. When I finally arrive home, I stare at my new quesadilla maker in bewilderment, wondering where I took my first wrong turn.

But there will always be those days where you find that you can't get the words down and decide that the problem isn't your brain or your creative process but a lack of brightly patterned notebooks or encouraging stickers. The answer to writer’s block? If not a new set of pushpins, you’re foolishly out of luck.

While I’m agonizing over the choice between a blue or red notepad, I notice an Asian boy following me. He can’t be older than 8 or 9 and is wearing one of those puffy red ski jackets.

He makes little attempt to be discreet and nearly bumps into my left hip with the full force of a rugby player. Then, he looks me up and down, from head to toe.

"She's wearing a North Face jacket and boots," he says, his hand balled into a fist and raised to his mouth as if speaking into a tape recorder.

This little kid is cataloguing my every move, I realize, feeling suddenly self-conscious. I try ignore him as I make my way to the Crayola aisle.

But a few seconds later, I see his watchful eye following another shopper.

"She’s carrying a yellow purse," he whispers into his imaginary microphone.

I smile, reminded of my own Harriet the Spy phase, carrying around a clipboard everywhere I went, writing observant, sometimes nosey, notes about the people around me: how a friend liked to pick her wedgies when she thought no one was looking; that a boy in my fourth-grade class had cute dimples; the way my Nana worked the phrase “ho hum” into every conversation.

But as a teenager, I decided I was better off living life than watching it from behind a curtain—probably because I was worried what others might think of me. Still, I never lost that sense of cataloguing. And, even now, I sometimes run to the bathroom during family gatherings to scribble down a note on any scrap of paper I can find. But unlike the boy in the red coat, I never let my relatives catch me in the act.

Maybe it’s because I’ve convinced myself they would not approve. "Nana was so excited to see her name," Mom once told me of an article I wrote. (I’d been afraid that calling my 85-year-old grandmother’s cheeks "wrinkled" might offend her.)

Yet this kid was bold—much more courageous than I. He was watching us and didn't care who knew it or overheard, however insulting or harmless his insights may be. He wasn't scurrying away to the bathroom secretly perusing someone else's e-mail account. Here is a writer; hear him roar.

Surprisingly enough, it's now me that’s following him, peeking around corners to discover his next victim and what details he’ll consciously capture. What will he notice about the man in blue jeans and worker’s boots or the teenage girl in a Miley Cyrus t-shirt? How will he freeze them in time and essence without thinking twice about who will care?

The boy's face still materializes in my mind on occasion, probably because his lesson was the real one that day: being a writer doesn’t occur in a store or on paper, but out loud. It happens when you accept that you will be intrusive, you will offend people, and you will be criticized. You will own pens and pencils and clipboards, but these possessions won’t be what makes you part of that world. Because what makes you a writer is actually having the audacity to carry on as such—to put up with the awkward interviews, rejection letters, and nosey acquaintances.

After a few minutes of watching my new friend, I give a nod to him (though he’s too captivated by his next victim to notice) and return to my list, now seemingly useless. Will markers make me brave? Will snacks make me trust that my family is proud?

But there is one thing I don’t want to leave without. I head towards the Electronics section, thinking perhaps I'd like a tape recorder of my own.

Alyssa Martino Comment