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Davis, California

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Column: Paperback Writer

I’ve always felt connected to Maya Angelou. Growing up in the Central Valley with no other “Mayas” around, in elementary school I lived for those moments when Angelou was mentioned in a textbook or by a teacher. For a fleeting moment, I could bask in the glory of a) knowing that someone with my name did something extraordinary enough to appear in a book, and b) knowing that I had effectively one-upped all the “Jennifers” and “Sarahs” in my class.

But it wasn’t until this past weekend that I actually learned something about Maya Angelou’s life.

In attempts to address my post-Oprah depression (miss you!), I tuned into The Oprah Winfrey Network on Sunday and caught a program starring Maya Angelou.

I learned that when she was eight years old, Maya Angelou was the subject of abuse. Four days after she confessed the identity of her attacker, news broke that the man was found dead in town. That was the last day Angelou spoke for five years. The last day her voice was heard by anyone on the planet until she was 13. “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”

To think that a woman so expressive with her words could go five years with pen and paper as her sole means of communicating is utterly mind-blowing.

While I’ve been writing things down since I learned how to hold a pencil without piercing my hand, I don’t think I’ve ever believed in what I’ve written.

Sure, when I came up with a borderline obnoxious but nevertheless witty title for a high school paper, I’d laugh and give myself a pat on the back. But to think that I could ever call myself a “writer” like Mark Twain or Ira Glass was absolutely out of the question.

We use writing like it’s a sixth sense. I don’t care what your major is, what your first language was or how many books you’ve read, you need writing.

When things are too painful to say out loud, or too heart-wrenching to share over the phone, we turn to writing for guidance. Sometimes, solidifying our thoughts in writing is the only way we can confirm their legitimacy.

And I’m not just talking about journaling or diary writing. The essays you write for class and the cover letters you write for job applications aren’t just arbitrary representations of whatever pops in your head. They’re your words, your ideas and your creations.

Don’t be afraid to believe in what you write. Every time you crank out a paper or grocery list, you’re recording original thought. And when you submit that paper or give that list to your grocery-shopping robot, your words stand alone, representing who you are.

We’re all writers. Maybe you don’t write to make a living or pay the bills, but who cares? What you write can make a difference for someone else, and I’d say that gives you the OK to call yourself a writer.

Since September of 2009, J.K. Rowling has re-posted the following message on her Twitter account every six months or so: “This is the real me, but you won’t be hearing from me often I’m afraid, as pen and paper are my priority at the moment.” Besides enraging members of the not-so-underground Harry Potter fandom, Rowling’s tweet[s] serve as a reminder of what writing can do for a person if their words are surrounded by enough belief. People are willing to wait decades for that woman to produce a paragraph of text.

Whenever I hear Barack Obama address the nation, I think of the speechwriters who made it happen. And when Jon Stewart can’t help but laugh when delivering a satirical joke during an episode of “The Daily Show,” I know there’s a very proud nerd backstage. While these brilliant people rarely get recognized for their work, I’d venture a guess that it doesn’t matter all that much. Knowing that their words gave a stranger something to believe in might just be enough.

So the next time you’re staring at a blank page and have no clue what to fill it with, remember that you have the power to rock the world with your words. As my namesake, ’80s television sensation “Maya the Bee,” might say, “Bee the change you wish to see in the world.” And don’t forget to keep a record of the whole thing. We need something new to believe in.

MAYA MAKKER asks “What about engineering?” If you thought that line made The Namesake the ballin’ movie that it is, let her know at mgmakker@ucdavis.edu.


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