Monday, March 23, 2009

ESSAY: Mountain Letters - My Writing Life

When I was a little girl of three, after watching someone on TV write something, perhaps it was Bugs Bunny scribbling a note to Elmer Fudd, I took a piece of paper and made my own wavy, jagged lines undulating across the page. Line after line I tried to imitate the crooked scribble I'd seen, imagining what it all said, probably even saying it out loud while I wrote. After I was done, I brought it to my mother in the kitchen and I proudly said, “Look Mommy, I wrote you this,” to which she offhandedly replied, “That’s nice, Honey, but those aren’t real words, real words have letters.” I was undeterred and snapped back, “These are real letters, they are mountain letters,” and off I went in a huff.
Rejection of one’s work is never easy.

I called them mountain letters because that is what they looked like to me then, like row after row of mountains, high and low, tall and small. But I knew my mother was right, they were not, in fact, real because I couldn’t remember what I had written, couldn’t tell what it said anymore. Some innate desire to communicate got the better of me. I went back into the kitchen and asked my mother to show me real letters. That day she showed me how to write my name. I was hooked. I wouldn’t leave her alone after that. Every chance I got I pestered her to teach me until I learned how to read and write. It was the greatest gift she ever gave me.

It wasn't long before I wrote my own stories, trying to emulate what I read in books. I remember some of those first pieces I wrote, they were always about a girl who discovered some secret, something that made her different from everyone else. She’d always known she was different, but now she understood why. And now that she understood that why, she needed to learn how to accept it, how to make use of it, or how to transcend it. Sometimes it would be all of the above. I think that scenario still captivates me to this day.

Songs came pouring out of me, too, sung loudly from my backyard swing set and later copied painstakingly into a notebook. Poems were written about flowers and secret woodlands, about dogs, about horses and best friends moving away. They were written about mean fathers and unbearable little brothers, too. There were love poems about teen idols like Donnie Osmond or David Cassidy. And eventually they were written about real boys, too -- oh my, the poems and love songs I have written through the years.

I wrote journal entries, copious diaries that started full of promise, overflowing with thoughts, hopes and dreams, only to drift into empty pages and be abandoned, then restarted in other notebooks, again and again. I was fickle.

I wrote letters, I wrote cards, I wrote children’s stories for the little kids in my family, my neighborhood, later for the children I was in charge of as a babysitter or nanny.

I wrote essays on politics, on music, on drugs, and on religion. I wrote plans for my future, names of my future children, lists of places I wanted to live, things I would someday do.

When I was 23 the place I lived in burned down in the middle of the night. I barely got out with my life. After, I was able to recover some things, but most of my writing was destroyed. I didn’t write anything for a long time. It was too hard to think of the fragility of it all, both life and word.

I did write during that awful decade I sat in a chair, fat, round, depressed, hiding from the world and stuffing my anxiety. But I never wrote about the things I should have. I didn’t write about being fat, or being scared, or being lifeless or empty. You could call it a different kind of writer’s block, more of a blockade. It was ok to write about this but not that, this can come out but that has to stay secret. Call it “selective writer’s block”…sort of like selective hearing.

Is there such a thing as selective living?

I wrote little when I was going through infertility, well, maybe a poem or two, but not much really. I didn’t write during any of my pregnancies. I think I was busy literally creating a person so I didn’t have any figurative creative energy to spare. Or maybe I was afraid to write about loving them too much until they were safely here. I had three miscarriages and did write poems about my lost babies, but only once they were gone.

When my two precious children were finally, safely, miraculously here on earth I loved them so much I gave all my energy to them, it flowed from me like milk from my breasts, vibrated from my aching tired arms after holding them for hours as they fussed or slept peacefully – I had little poetry for that, no prose could truly capture the essence of that painful heartbreakingly beautiful gut wrenching joy. That’s okay, that’s how it’s supposed to be with new babies. I wrote them each their own lullaby, beautiful in its simplicity. They think all children have personal lullabies. I hope they always do.

But now my children are not babies, they are still little but they are not newborn infants. Now my house will not burn down and even if it did I can keep back-up discs. Now I have lived 45 years and have come near death more times than I should have and know how fragile, how short life can be. I want to have something to show for it that is mine, mine alone. My children are a gift, and how they turn out is as much their own accomplishment as it is their father’s and mine. But my writing now is for me, it is for me to give to myself, to show myself that I matter on my own. I have something to say and I can say it in such a way as to make someone, anyone, feel. Even if more often than not that someone is just me.

And so I write. I write because it is the one constant in my life for nearly as long as I can remember. It is the only thing I have consistently been any good at, however good that may be. It is who I am. I would write even if no one read it but me. Even if everything I wrote looked like the mountain letter scribbles of a three year old, illegible, meaningless to anyone else, I would still write it down.

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