The first time I set my pen to paper with intention was writing a poem to enter a school contest. It was sloppy and spoke poorly of my ability. But what it wasn’t was passive. In the poem I attempted to grapple with weighty topics like domestic abuse and failed relationships; themes that I as a 16-year-old did not know of. A girl who, by that point, had lived a privileged life, spared not just the onslaught of gendered violence but even the awareness of a world without gender parity.
Reading over that same poem during my first year at university, I couldn’t help but be gobstruck at my youthful pugnacity. I was a wolf dragged by my prey, knowing it was too hefty to bring down but refusing to release my iron grip on its throat. I wrote in the active voice to describe topics I barely could comprehend. I never quite brought my message home, but the effort was valiant and my pride never suffered.
I still smile to myself as I read those lines I had written all those years ago. It is such an ugly thing to read, but in a way that makes it endearing. Silly me, thinking I could write that way, I scoff before pumping out a page or so of soulless ideas. I like to think my writing now is cautious in the way of a seasoned veteran. I now dance around bold strokes, choosing instead to settle for marks I can hit. My sentences are passive. Weak. Fruitless.
In grade school I had shot for the moon and missed, but now I am too reluctant to pick up the gun. Pull up any of the latest documents stored on my hard drive and you will see a timid writer shucking off any responsibility.
Steven King wrote in his memoir 20 years ago that, “timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.” There’s something comfortably noncommittal about, “He was loved by her,” instead of “She loved him.”
I imagine the title ‘writer’ reserved for the greats, the Hemingways, the Tolstoys, the Twains, and the Shakespeares. Not for me. Not for the college kid sitting cross-legged on the floor next to a half-eaten microwaved burrito. Not the coward too scared to write what she wants, knowing full well she has no critics but her own mind.
The paper beckons my ink, but my hand shakes. How will I ever make my mark?
Someday soon I will look back at these same lines and laugh at my naïve and amateur mistakes, but I hope I don’t look back and see the work of a passive writer.