I was in seventh grade the first time I felt like maybe I was a writer. My language arts teacher coaxed it out of me. She was a young, pretty, newly-minted college graduate with blonde hair that fell softly to her shoulders. Funnily enough, I can’t remember her name or another other features, but I do remember that she would read to us from chapter books almost every day. At the time, I kind of felt like I was too old for story hour – but, our whole class would sit transfixed while she read books like Matilda, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Somehow, those stories would transport me from the classroom into a wide world completely constructed from words. It had never happened before. My teacher also read some of her own creative works. The one I remember best concerned the despondent life of a house fly. So convincing was her portrait of the measly, black fly that I spent years believing flies really did want to be swatted so they could end their miserable existence as quickly as possible.
But it wasn’t just her creations or the chapter books that led to my adolescent awakening. My teacher engaged the whole class in a rigorous (by seventh grade standards) creative writing boot camp. We wrote almost every day. Sometimes classical music would swirl around the room while she pushed us to visualize the music and create a story for that picture. Other times we would write in silence, heads bent while pencils dashed feverishly across blue-lined pages. The classroom seemed small and gray next to that blank paper. She encouraged us to dream, to formulate sentences for those dreams, to push the limits of possibility and create the ridiculous. For the first time I can remember, the stories that moved continuously inside my head began to materialize. I didn’t just have to pretend I was a mermaid while I flopped around in the bathtub, I could fashion a vivid scaled creature out of a few sentences instead.
Admittedly, those first bumbling efforts were hardly masterpieces, but my teacher never wavered in her enthusiasm for our creations. Her encouragement was manna for my pre-teen, brown curly haired, low-self-esteemed, chubby little soul. My first anthology was titled Not Exactly Shakespeare – very clever for a twelve year old that probably hadn’t even read Romeo and Juliet. I printed out copies at home for my teacher, parents and grandparents. The pages were sprinkled liberally with pixelated, oversized graphics and fancy fonts. My most memorable piece was a sophisticated poem about an overly large woman endowed with unfortunately large hips. If I recall correctly, I compared her walk to that of a dinosaur.
Once this new world of creation was open to me, writing became a natural outlet. I was particularly fond of bad poetry and romance. Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl. Boy rescues girl. Boy kisses girl. Tragedy ensues and then they get married. Sometimes it rhymes, and so on. I filled up notebooks and scraps of paper with half started, never finished stories. I explored fascinating worlds – and some that were rather dull, too. I didn’t recognize, then, how similar my stories were to what I was reading. Just like the stories we had composed to classical music in that seventh grade language arts class, my forms were often based on an outside influence. Interestingly, despite the catharsis and joy that writing brought to my life, I never really considered writing as some kind of career plan. I would either strike it rich after accidentally creating a masterpiece, or I would be a lawyer.
I haven’t done either one. I became a mother instead, a wife. I’ve continued to fill up notebooks with stories that never go anywhere. Sometimes I read them to my children, but mostly I keep them to myself. I still sometimes write cheesy romance and terrible poems. But I also write about my life, my children and a more grown-up imaginary world. Instead of mermaids in bathtubs, I write about splitting up and death – which could sometimes be the same thing. My seventh grade self couldn’t have understood that. I probably write about them now because I still don’t.
The best thing I ever wrote happened in my thirties. I wrote about my children, just a few verses unrhymed and unmetered. It began like this:
This evening while dinner was in the oven and I stood near the stove,
my daughter climbed up on a high stool
and sank into the circle of my arms.
I’m not sure everyone would agree that this is my best. But, I’ve found that writing doesn’t have to be a formal, published, paid for thing. It doesn’t even have to be liked, though it’s certainly nice when someone does like it. What I write can just be simple expressions of love or angst or fear. Sometimes it’s scary and reveals too much. Sometimes it’s cliché and holds back even more. Often the simplest expressions touch most deeply or tilt the world farthest of its axle. There are no real formulas or processes or patterns. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.
It’s an anomaly.