Redefining north.

Writers on Writing #103: Wendy Fontaine

Writers on Writing #103: Wendy Fontaine



Press harder, he says, and I do, watching his computer screen for proof of my identity to emerge. I push into the pads of my splayed fingers, lifting onto my tiptoes for leverage, as a cluster of ovals begins to appear on his monitor. But my ovals aren't the distinct images I've seen on crime shows - black swirls so precise and unique they can be used to distinguish me from every other person on the planet. Mine are blurry and muted and smooth at the edges.

We try a few times more until finally he sees an image he likes and saves it. He's a TSA agent signing me up for pre-screening security clearance, meaning the next time I fly I'll be able to keep on my shoes and my jacket, or a belt if I'm wearing one.

Your prints are beginning to wear off, he says.

This seems impossible. How can something so personal, so biological and pertinent to my being just wear off? Crime shows did not prepare me for this.

Do you do a lot of typing? he asks. Or writing?

I hesitate. I've been writing since I was ten years old - spooky stories, at first, to scare my schoolmates and later, as a teenager, moody poetry to scare my mother - then, after college, twelve years as a journalist, reporting the tragedies and triumphs of strangers. When my daughter was still in the womb, I wrote her letters, one a day. After she was born, the letters became essays about how hard, and how beautiful, it was to mother her.

But never have I written so voraciously and intimately as I do now, on a manuscript about divorce and the loss of identity that follows. Some days, the words come hard, a trickle. Other days they pull me under, to a fitful, maddening place where I think only about wrangling them into sentences. The story swirls inside of me, becoming more distinct with time and polish.

My writer friends and I, we are hesitant to call ourselves writers. Instead, we are teachers, librarians, business owners, computer engineers, architects, lawyers. We write in coffee shops, on train rides to work, or while our kids attend art classes. We wonder when, exactly, we'll earn license to say yes, we are writers. When we are published? When we sign book deals? Or will it come at a point less tangible - not a precise moment in time but a slow, methodical happening that occurs without celebration or attention or even any notice at all?

This man is telling me that my fingerprints are disappearing, that I am leaving them behind on the page, punctuating the story of my life with actual bits of my DNA. At the end of the day, my fingertips ache.

Calling myself a writer was always something I did privately, indulgently, like a child who fancies herself an astronaut or a princess. But now my body reveals its secret. There is no difference between story and skin.

Yes, I tell the agent. I'm a writer.

Well, he says, handing me my passport. That explains it.

Wendy Fontaine is an essayist and journalism professor in southern California. Her work has appeared in Readers Digest, Brain Child, Hippocampus, Role Reboot, Literary Mama, Mutha Magazine, and elsewhere. She is working on her first book, a memoir.

Writers on Writing #104: Gwendolyn Edward

Writers on Writing #104: Gwendolyn Edward

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