First Impressions

by Josh Hanagarne

art-firstimpressions“So how do I become a writer?” I get this question a lot. Once you’ve written a book and have a book deal with a traditional publisher, you learn that people suddenly think you know something about how writing happens.

I don’t know how to become a writer because I’ve almost always had the compulsion to write, an urge to tell stories that goes hand in hand with the Tourette Syndrome that I fight every day. The urges that compel tics are similar to the urges that compel me to write. There’s an itch that enters the mind and cannot be scratched without a pen and paper, or a keyboard. If you’re like me, the itch becomes a necessity. I can fight it for a while, but there’s a cost, whether I deny the urge to write or the urge to have tics.

I’ve almost always had the compulsion to write, an urge to tell stories that goes hand in hand with the Tourette Syndrome that I fight every day.

Way back when, on the rare occasions when I pictured myself as a writer, I was always signing books, or telling admiring fans, “Really, I’m flattered, but I’m already married to a supermodel.” They’d giggle and wink and buy lots of books, disappointed but good sports about it all.

I never fantasized about spending lots of time alone, thinking, worrying, second-guessing myself, being mocked by a blinking cursor.

I don’t really know how to become a writer, but I can speculate about why I’m a writer, and I believe I’m a writer because when the urge comes, I sit down and write. This has meant being exposed to vulnerability and judgment. This has meant writing things like:

I made the noise with my mouth again. Tourette’s. Clack clack clack. My four year old son squeezed my hand. The guy in front of us flinched and made an exasperated noise, a loud, prolonged sigh directed at me. We were in line at a grocery store. The guy was going to turn around at any second. And I hoped, not for the first time, that when he did he’d be curious enough to listen to a friendly explanation of Tourette Syndrome. But more likely he’d act annoyed, or worse, he’d act like a tough guy.

Clack clack clack.

And here it was, he was turning, turning, and now we’d see. He was at least six feet tall, well-built. Maybe 30 years old. He saw the middle of my throat, then looked up at me. He seemed to be trying to decide whether to act tough, or incredulous, or annoyed. Probably he hadn’t expected the phantom clacker to be 6’7” and a very solid 260 lbs.

He seemed to be trying to decide whether to act tough, or incredulous, or annoyed. Probably he hadn’t expected the phantom clacker to be 6’7” and a very solid 260 lbs.

“I’m sorry, it bugs me too, man,” I said. “I don’t make the noises for fun. I’d stop if I could.” And I smiled what I hoped was a winning smile conveying nothing but a conciliatory sort of but-what’re-you-gonna-do? bonhomie.

He snorted and narrowed his eyes. “But you could get in another line.”

“Seriously, man?”  

“Seriously,” he said. This was rare. Most people are fine once they see that it’s something uncontrollable going on. I make noises and I twitch. It’s pretty obviously a disorder and most people can see that.  But whatever.  

“That’s not going to happen,” I said. I looked down at my son, who was still holding my hand. “It’s okay, buddy.” I turned back to the guy. “It’s called Tourette’s,” I said. “I’d be happy to tell you about it if you want. Otherwise, this–”

“Otherwise what?” He stepped forward, which was dumb, because now the cashier was waiting for him because it was his turn to check out and now he was going in the wrong direction.

“I’m not moving,” I said, and we stared at each other.  

“Sir?” said the cashier. “Sir?”  

“Do something or turn around,” I said, leaning down into his face like I was Really Bad News (I’m not). “We’re hungry and we want to go home.”  

He turned around. I had stood up for myself, but I felt like an idiot for acting tough, as if posturing and antler-crashing in a Fresh Values market next to a rack of US Weekly and People magazines is anything but silly. I felt dumb because I could have stayed at home and avoided the whole scene. But I would have been embarrassed to even consider staying home. My son wanted some milk with his lunch and we went and got milk. I couldn’t say, “Let’s wait until Mom gets home and she can do it. She’s the one who can handle being in public.”

One of the most challenging things about having Tourette’s is that I rarely get to make my own first impressions. There is this thing that announces my arrival and defines me in advance.

I went home, made lunch for my son, and wrote about what had just happened. It didn’t even occur to me that I was writing. It’s just what I do, now. It’s how I learn what I think. What I learned that day was that one of the most challenging things about having Tourette’s is that I rarely get to make my own first impressions. There is this thing that announces my arrival and defines me in advance. It’s not entirely unlike sending a piece of writing into the world ahead of you.

Everything is a story. You can’t control how people will react to your stories, but you can decide whether or not to tell them. For me, every time I keep a story to myself because I’m worried about how readers may receive it, and every time I stay in my house, for fear of how I will be perceived, I regret it. So, I write.

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About Josh Hanagarne

Josh Hanagarne is the author of The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Strength, Faith, and the Power of Family. His book was selected as one of Barnes and Noble's Discover Great New Writers books for Summer 2013, was listed as one of Huffington Post's Most Anticipated Reads of 2013, and recently appeared in O Magazine. He works on level 3 of the Salt Lake City Public Library and loves it.

Josh Hanagarne

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