My name is too long, I remember thinking, as I struggled with a fat black school pencil on that wide beginner’s school paper with the many blue-green guide lines. Eight letters! That’s just ridiculous. Why couldn’t I have been given the name J-A-N-E or D-E-B or B-E-T-H? Nooooo…I get the bad luck of TWO FULL NAMES IN ONE! Plus a middle name and a last name! Printing was a huge pain in the ass, I thought, although to be fair I would have thought “bottom” instead of “ass.” Writing, for me at age five, was a completely useless and boring mechanical task.

Mrs. McClintock, My Kindergarten Teacher: Marianne, why aren’t you practicing writing your name?

Me: I don’t want to. I don’t need to know how to write! I can read, I can talk. Writing is too slow. I don’t need to learn how to write my name! (ed. Yes, I always talked like that. So sue me.)

Mrs. McC: (patiently): Everyone needs to learn to write. You will write a great deal all of your life. Your signature will be needed on all kinds of paperwork.

Me: (stubbornly, staring her in the eye) I can write an “X” instead of my whole name.

Mrs. McC: (pausing, then sighing) OK. If you finish the whole page there with your name in 15 minutes, I will let you go to the library instead of going out for recess, and you can pick out another book to take home.

Me: (big smiling inside, cool on the outside) I’ll try.

Mrs. McC: I know you can do it!

I did do it, and stuffed all the books the school librarian would allow me to pilfer into my plaid bookbag with the skinny black leather buckle straps, while the other kids like J-O-E and K-E-N and T-I-N-A frolicked on the playground. I vowed someday to marry a Vietnamese man with the last name of “Ng.” Shortening my name to just “Mari” was not an option; far too Catholic-sounding. “X” was still appealing.

The eight letter girl grew up to spell that whole long name, although my handwriting never received very high praise and would be better suited to a pilled-up physician. I am not entirely sure when I began to write because I wanted to; probably in my later elementary years, a poem or two or a little one-act play here and there. I think I started writing because I needed to as I entered my teenage years, when you couldn’t say things so directly and things began to get more complicated and shadowy. Writing was an escape, a comfort, a place to go when there was nowhere I could go except my boring old room. Confessions, wishes, long soap-opera-type fantasies, angry rants, timid forays into longer form poetry, song lyrics…it wasn’t all that good, but the important part was that it was being done. I was learning something about how to write, what worked and what didn’t, every time I pulled out a notebook and pen and tried, even though I wasn’t fully aware of that at the time. But I never much thought about being a writer, like, a real actual writer. It seemed too staid and solitary, and I honestly didn’t think what I was doing was worthy, even though other people did. I felt like I was sort of tricking them.

I think I just had to grow up in order to be the kind of writer that I thought was worth being read. I needed all those books from the library to be consumed and thought about. I needed to not be a stubborn kindergartener or pouty fuzzy-brained teen. But most importantly, I needed to be out and about, banking experiences, seeing and doing and watching and listening and feeling all the detail that I could, open to the world. I had the words, but vocabulary means nothing without having some kind of feel of the flow of things, empathy, appreciation, a sharpening of the senses, groundedness.

After that, it is repeating the mantra: DON’T CENSOR. I am not talking about editing. Good god, do learn to edit yourself. Even writers I really enjoy sometimes don’t get to the damn POINT fast enough for my taste, but then again, eight letters was too much for me. I don’t like the Endless Revision school of writing, but taking some merciless sweeps over your work is usually necessary. What I am talking about is sometimes having the guts to say things that you want to say that other people can’t or won’t, and not copying the writers you admire. You must have your own voice, your own way. Third-rate Anne Rice might sell, but the only satisfaction you will get will be in your comfy bank balance, vacation home, and…hey, wait a minute. NO! Fight the power! Be yourself. That is the most valuable thing you can bring to a reader. Believe it.

If I were to write a letter to Mrs. McClintock now, it might go like this:

Dear Mrs. McC,

I wanted to let you know that your gentle guidance and clever edu-carrots in my youth helped me in many, many ways. I have signed many a document in these 40+ years, and never once had to admit that I could not or would not spell my name to any disgruntled bank loan officer or college-admissions frump. I did end up writing a lot of stuff, although I would apologize to you for the inappropriate language at times. Your encouragement led me to pursue something that was not only a skill I needed to have, but turned out to be something I love even more than cheese. As a fellow Wisconsinite, I know that you understand the passion of my statement.

Thank you again.

With great fondness,

“X” Ng