Writer

The school library smelled of paper and cloth, floor wax and hush. I chose Abraham Lincoln for the book report assigned by Mrs. Evans because of Abe’s thoughtful, clear-eyed expression from the split-rail fence he sat upon. He was barefoot, as I preferred to be; and he liked to read. Like me.

The pages were large in my hands and felt velvety but substantial, like the Catawba leaves on the trees shading my grandmother’s front lawn. I remember running my hands over the d’Aulaire illustrations, which looked so real that I expected to see gold, green, and rose-colored smudges on my fingertips afterward.

“Abraham Lincoln: Boy from a Log Cabin.” This was the title of my book report. It was the first book report I had ever written, being only seven years old. I liked my pink and turquoise lined manila paper, and my pencils all pointy sharp, lined up like cross-ties on a railroad track.

The pencil felt good in my hand. As I wrote, I was transported. I was Abraham Lincoln, lying before a flickering fire, writing with charcoal on a wooden shovel. I smelled of smoke and heard the split hickory pop in the flames.

I carefully copied the d’Aulaire illustrations, using the edges, sharp and dull, of my colored pencils, fancying myself an author-illustrator; and I was happy with my work. I lost all sense of time.

At school, when Mrs. Evans saw my book report, she held it up in front of the class and exclaimed, “Why, this is wonderful!” Waving it in the air like good news, she took it into the hallway when the bell rang, and showed it to the other teachers. And then she stapled it to large pieces of construction paper, page by page, and she displayed my book report in the hallway outside the classroom, so that everyone who approached our classroom would see what I had done.

I knew then that I’d be a writer when I grew up. This was always what I said, forever afterward: I’m a writer.

Since my last book was published eight years ago, and I finished the thesis for my master’s degree in literature, I haven’t published anything; nor have I tried to publish anything. I haven’t written, either, except for my personal journal and occasional blogging. I lost my personal true north and my compass needle went swinging wildly when my daughter died and, yes, even before then when I quit my work in psychology; when I noticed at the last conference I keynoted, that I did not belong in that world any more.

In what world do I belong, then? This is what I ask myself as I walk in the cow pasture, watching out for cow patties and horseflies. The bull, T-bone, regards me suspiciously when I greet him; I’m afraid of him, and he knows it, I’m sure.

“You’re no farmer’s wife, no cow poke, no bull rider,” T-bone says, tossing his horns at me.

“No, I’m a writer,” I declare. It makes me laugh, because I’m walking in a pasture and I haven’t published anything in eight years. I don’t write. How can I be a writer?

It has rained a lot here lately, and down by the creek, water still stands in the hollows made by the hooves of the horse and the cattle. I take my shoes off and walk through the mud, red clay oozing up between my toes. It sticks, feels substantial.

Writing oozes up between the chinks in my heart.

I know I’ll be a writer when I grow up. When I grow whole, when I grow some courage and have enough faith to write from my heart again; I’ll write.

21 responses

  1. I guess I have never really had a dream of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I guess that is also why I still don’t know where I am going. I could post blame on my deceased parents having never really given direction, like throwing seed into a garden and yelling at it “grow, dammit!” Of course, they never cursed at me.

    They gave me shelter, food, clothing. They gave me very strict structure and expectation (there was never any doubt whatsoever that I would attend school for 16 not 12 years). But hugs, kisses, and words of encouragement, something I desperately needed, were sorely lacking.

    I guess that is why in my little heart of hearts, I am still looking for those hugs, kisses, and words of encouragement. I give it profusely with the expectation that someone will return it. But I have found when you give expecting, you don’t normally get. In fact, you are left with an even bigger hole. Well, maybe it isn’t any bigger. It just feels bigger.

    “There’s a God-sized hole in all of us…” is the lyric that comes to mind. Kabbalah teaches that the imagined “hole” should not be viewed as a deep dark pit but as the expanse of the sky. The deep dark hole is the “illusion” of the Adversary, the “Devil” if you will. “The lions do lack and suffer want…but he who trust in the LORD lacks no good thing.” But I still feel lacking!

    But I digress…back to the lack of direction. My parents were from the “old school”–find a job to make money. Like money solves everything. Well, I guess (I do a lot of guessing) when you grow up in the days following the depression, and you grow up black in a white world that tells you you are lacking no matter what you do, money is the great equalizer.

    But I wanted to draw, to create, and no one saw it. I needed someone else to see it for me, and to tell me, “you can do this…you should do this…” Now I am a 54 year old wanting someone to show me how to do it.

    I used to tell my daughter, the last time not being so long ago, when she was gripped by the fear of taking on some new challenge, “You were born knowing how to do it, just like you weren’t born knowing how to ride a bike. But you tried it and you learned how to do it, and now you don’t worry about riding a bike. So it is with this…” It still took mom showing her how to ride that bike.

    Now, I want to write, but I don’t know how to get started. I find myself on blogs that I stumble upon and I write for hours answering and commenting. I am never mean but I feel I do sometimes give unsolicited advise. But mostly I give encouragement. It is my gift or at least one of them.

    I have been told more than once so I guess (there I go again) I just haven’t heard it enough to really believe it…that I underestimate my ability and that I don’t trumpet my strengths, that I am far more than I present myself to be…

    “They” must be talking about that other girl…the fish swimming in the other direction.

    • Vonnie, your comment took my breath away. I had forgotten that you had such deep wells of thought and feeling in you; it reminded me to think of why we may have been put together, way back then, before we were grownup women.

      Allow me to do for you what you’ve done for your daughter, which is to use a mother’s voice. Get ye hence to a bicycle shoppe and get thee a bicycle. In other words, go to wordpress.com and get you a blog. All you need is a valid email address you want to use, and an idea of what you’re going to call it.

      Think about what you want to call it first; then maybe you’ll want to make an email to go with it. I thought of the idea of Third Eve, then I got a gmail account similarly named. Then I started the blog. I’m good with Photoshop, so I made myself a header; but WordPress gives you many nice styles, and you can take your time. You can start one way and remodel later, using a different style.

      The most important thing is that you honor that part of yourself by writing. It doesn’t matter that it’s “just blogging,” or that others may pity you for your feeble efforts. As Charlotte said in this thread, blogging is writing. It’s a start. Lots of writers blog (published writers). Even if you are never published otherwise, blogging is publication. People will read you.

      Poke around the blogs of people you like to read, and add the blogs they read that you like to your blogroll. Take it a day at a time. But my advice is the same as writing teacher Brenda Ueland’s, which was “insert butt in chair; write.” This is what Stephen King says and Annie Dillard and all the other writers who write about writing. Do it, they say. Write.

      You are far more than you present yourself to be. We each have a persona (that’s what I put on Facebook! LOL… or at the grocery store or at school meetings etc. etc.). And then there are the multifaceted places of our selves, the deep parts. Some parts can only be honored through religion, others through the arts, and so on. Maybe one reason we’ve reconnected is so that you can find that mother’s voice in an old friend who will reflect your own beauty back to you, the beauty and depth of the deep pool of your heart.

      Write, my friend. Start a blog and let me know where you set up shop.

  2. Helen, your comments (like your blog) are invigorating. I’d like to write fiction some day, but I don’t think I have that skill set, whatever it is. (See? It’s such a mystery to me that I obviously can’t do it.)

    Alida, maybe you will say “I am woman, hear me roar!” Haha.

    For the record, I actually don’t believe myself when I say to our bull, “I’m a writer.” I might as well say, “I’m a turnip.” It has the same feeling of craziness about it.

  3. I have taken courses in fiction as well as poetry, but I am uncomfortable writing fiction. It makes me feel like I lying. I don’t feel that way when I use fictitious images in poetry, which, of course, is silly. But then, we are all a bit inconsistent. I am not uncomfortable writing nonfiction.

  4. I’m afraid I’ll be walking through my farm someday and a hen will eye me suspiciously, knowing I’m not a farmer. Only, I’m not a writer either…I wonder what I’ll tell her?

  5. Thanks for your response, Eve. I sort of felt like I’d inadvertently made an enemy of real nice, intelligent woman. I don’t mean to come on that strong.

    I do want to publish a book of poems with a real publisher (not necessarily a big press), but my life doesn’t depend on it. I write because I have to, but I seek publication because I think I have something worthwhile to say. I am called to a ministry of reconciliation (mostly between blacks and whites) which usually calls for prose.) But poetry is the way I think.

  6. P.S. Helen, about your poetry. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I am not much for poetry. Poetry is, to me, the most difficult sort of writing because it comes from enlightened beings if it’s good, and it’s appreciated by other enlightened. Among whom I’m not.

    I worked at a literary journal once, for a world reknowned poet who was an Estonian expat. His wife had fled Latvia after it was occupied, and she too was a poet. I loved them dearly, although I never understood them or their poetry. I only understood how it made me feel, and I discovered then that I had to have plenty of mental and emotional space before I could read poetry. Though I have a lot of it, I can’t read it unless I’ve had about four or five days meditative days. I’m handicapped that way, and that’s why I don’t read poetry much. I have so few meditative days.

    I don’t know how you do it, write poetry and blog about intelligent things both.

  7. Helen, I didn’t say “don’t seek publication, it’ll come.” That’s advice I’d never give another writer. I sought publication and it did come to me. And when I write something I like or love again, I’ll seek publication again. I’ll seek publication by a respected publisher like a hound after a fox. So I support you in seeking publication absolutely.

    As for age, I agree with you there, too. My second book was the one book I said I had to write. I would have felt my life was incomplete had I not written that book. After it came out, I felt immortal as a writer because I was in the Library of Congress, and I had written a seminal book in my field, a book that will always be referred to as the first on its topic. I love that book. And I want every other writer who loves their work to be published and to feel the way I felt then, and the pride I feel now in having been a Real Writer. Because somehow it’s not real until someone else agrees with you and publishes you. So I get that, Helen. I really do.

    What I meant was that publication wasn’t what I thought it would be, or what it would mean. There are a things about having been published that add pressure to a writer and I guess I’ll write about those next. It’s kind of like the difference between a teenager or young adult, falling madly in love and being all starry-eyed, and then actually marrying and finding out during the first year of marriage that it ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. It’s hard work. It’s more like that for me. I know some other writers and they have felt similarly, although this feeling is by no means universal among writers.

    I’m sorry I didn’t explain myself more fully. I’ll get to that and so your subsequent points are well made. I think I mis-wrote or you misunderstood, because publication is important if a writer wants it. And what writer doesn’t? Maybe some will write for the joy of writing, but it seems to me that some of us are meant to write and be published; we’re teaching something about ourselves and for some reason we just have to get it out there. So I do understand that. And I think that seeking publication can make one a better writer.

  8. BTW, I Didn’t see your entire response nor did I read your next entry before I wrote the above comment. I think we’re on the same page.

  9. I follow you, Eve. But I’ve heard the same “don’t seek publication. it’ll come” thing before. Always from published authors. It comes across like “do as I say not as I do.” That’s silly. I’m 61 years old and would like this done before I die. The journalist who dropped dead yesterday was 58. We are not promised tomorrow.

    Now I am balanced enough to know that in 100 years nobody will care what I wrote. That’s true of 98% of the writers out there. Life ought not be a competition. But at the risk of sounding horribly insensitive, our writings are our creations. We give birth to them just as surely as we do to our children.

    I know, enough money, and my book can be published before the sun sets. But I want readers because I have enough ego to think what I’m saying is important. And readers do go to Borders, B&N, and Amazon.com.

    I have the web sites for both of my chapbooks on the About page of my blog? Have you seriously considered ordering one? Nuf said. Only about 4 zillion people write poetry. I put out another call for a publisher on my blog. LOL

  10. I can’t wait to hear more about your writing. (I’m dead curious about your two books.)

    And being in the publishing industry, I can say that while on the one hand there is certainly a cutthroat, competitive aspect to winning a large publisher’s attention and making into your local B&N shelves, there is also a publisher out there for every kind of book. You can find a publisher for a novel about a mafia hit man and the Horned God, African-American lesbian romance novels, how-to books on composting human manure, and so on. Google those terms and see!

    Personally I wouldn’t use B&N as my goal for writing, except in terms of the potential for financial success. Big chains are pretty much pwned by the largest publishers as far as what gets shelf space. That doesn’t necessarily translate into the best quality or most interesting books.

    Eve replies:Anthromama, what a relief, because I was thinking about starting an African-American lesbian romance novel. THERE’S HOPE!

    Seriously, I’m just glad that readers continue to exist. I read all the time and I’d hate it if everyone stopped writing, or if all we had available was at Barnes and Noble. I recently finished reading Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, and I hated it even though it was a NYT Bestseller. But you can find it at B&N.

    Ugh. Give me a good, small, literary novel any day.

  11. Eve, You are absolutely right about publication. Why should there be a scarcity of book publication any more than not enough food to fed the whole world.

    Eve responds:
    Helen, I knew you would say that. And you’ll know that I’m going to say that there is enough food to feed the whole world in the United States alone. There is enough.

  12. Helen. Thanks for your advice, but I think I’ll write whatever I want to write whenever I want to write it, here on my very own blog.

    Publishing a book or books doesn’t give a writer all the things many of us thought it would do back when we were younger; perhaps it does for many other sorts of writers. For some, writing is something they must do, but they hate it. Annie Dillard says she is in some ways no better than a factory worker, as she writes because she has to. But at other times, as I read her writing, I know she loves her work passionately.

    Writing, like any other art, is strange and it’s not straightforward as a vocation or discipline. Me, myself, and I voted and we decided that it’s fine for me to write about my own writing on my own blog; overly sensitive writers who come here and don’t want to read my comments should stay away for a bit, because I am probably going to write another three or five or 100 entries about writing. Until I get it out of my system.

    Or not.

    And, one more thing, Helen. I do not operate from a scarcity mentality in which the universe has only so many publication slots for so many writers, and if a writer who isn’t all starry-eyed about publication (like me) publishes a book, it takes up the energetic space and the chance to be published of another writer who is all starry-eyed about it (like you or some other writer). I think the universe has more than enough of everything for everyone, including publication mojo. I think, with that guy in Ecclesiastes, that there is no end to the writing of books. So I’m hopeful that I will get to see you at Borders or B&N sometime.

  13. Eve, Please be careful. Saying, “having a book published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” is very insensitive. If you really feel that way, then don’t submit others and become the competition for those of us who are shopping first book manuscripts.

    Yes, I have two published chapbooks, but I want a book by me in Borders.

  14. RG, having a book published isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s not the holy grail I thought it was. But I’ll write more about that later.

    I wish you’d write about some of your pivotol moments in childhood!

    Helen, this is autobiographical and true, as far as I can remember it, and I remember these parts I’ve written about clearly. Thanks for the support. It means a lot, coming from another writer.

  15. That’s a lovely story, Eve. But here’s the rub. I don’t know for sure if this is fiction or memoir.

    If it’s fiction, it is a great story with tremendous insight into the life of a writer – that fight for personal balance along with the knowledge that our best work often comes when we are not balanced.

    But if it’s memoir – autobiography (I truly believe all writing is autobiographical to a degree. Even a grocery list is telling.) – I’d say the same as if it were a short story only I’d tread a bit lighter (or, at least, try to). And I’d suggest that a project undertaken as a memorial to that lost child has the potential not only for healing but as one’s masterpiece.

    Writers write the same thing over and over, hoping to achieve perfection. (Or is it wholeness we truly seek?) We will never get there, of course – not to perfection. But we can write to learn.

    And if this is memoir, you need to know that it is always best to remember. You have the best beginning in the world: I am a writer.

  16. Wow! That is a beautiful story.

    I have similar pivotal moments in regard to writing. Unlike you I haven’t had any books published. Maybe someday.

  17. Thank you both. I feel emotional, writing about writing–sad, full of longing, shy, giddy, joyful, fearful.

    Charlotte, thank you for what you wrote. Telling me you get a small charge here gives me a big one! LOL! And I can only hope that what you write is true, that blogging can be the breadcrumbs back home for me.

    (Let’s not mention the birds who eat them. . .).

  18. Oh, you are a writer. I get a small charge whenever my feedreader shows there’s a new post from you, because I know that whatever I read here is going to be good. On the practical side, I think blogging is a great way to get your writing boots back on, and also to find your courage, even if it is incremental and takes time.

  19. Bless you, I do hope that there will come a time when you feel whole again and a time when you imagination can run free and you begin to write because that is what you do best.

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