“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” Willa Cather
For all of what feels like the hundreds and hundreds of years of my life on this planet, the amount of time I spent NOT thinking, fretting, sweating, worrying and wondering about writing, about words, about placing letters and words together — mine and other people’s — was only for the first 6.4 years of my life.
I know this is a precise amount of time because I remember the exact moment I realized, in feeling more than real words, “wow, this telling a WHOLE story with words on paper is fun!” What did I know? I was 6.4 months old, four months past my sixth birthday, in grade one.
We had to write an original story. Create it from our own imagination. After much serious deliberation that a serious 6.4-year old like me would give a new homework assignment, I decided that my story would be a tragic love story about a girl adventurer falling into a big, wide, deep sandy hole. She would be rescued by some princely being who would do what princely beings did — kiss her dramatically. After the rescue and after that dramatic kiss, she would carry on adventuring without the prince, hence the tragedy. Somehow, for reasons I do not recall, I had tuned into the idea of lovers who could not be together. I MIGHT have been influenced at the time by the babysitter who, I learned latter, was having boyfriend troubles at the time.
Anyway, wanting to make it a very long and absorbing story, I dreamt up lots of adventurous stuff. I imagined many pages of fascinating events with an adventuring girl who was pretty much unfazed by anything that life threw at her, although I did not know the word unfazed at the time.
And then, when I thought I had enough for my story, I sat my serious little self down to do the assignment and write my story. Print, really; I did not yet know how to write.
I was puzzled by what happened next, the feelings that came up. Somehow I had managed to imagine the story in great detail from beginning to The End without actually factoring in that little troubling reality of the mental-into-physical necessity of pulling the words out of my head and onto the pages of my exercise book. The act of writing and its process. What was in my head wasn’t exactly flowing out like water onto the page.
That was the first facing of writing reality.
The assignment said we had to use both sides of the sheets of paper in our books. Now for reasons I did not understand then, turns out that I did not like to use the other side of the sheet of paper. I didn’t like the way it looked and I didn’t like the way it felt and I didn’t like the feel of the pencil as it moved along the page and I didn’t like the way the pencil sounded on the paper and I didn’t like how the pressure difference meant that the letters looked different than letters written on the right side of the sheet. I did not like it one little bit. And as I imagined it, I wasn’t going to like page 2 and 4, and 6 because they did not feel like good places to put words of my very important whole written (printed) out story. Every second sheet was just going to be so, so wrong.
That was the second facing of my particular writing reality: the sensory experience, the visual aesthetic of everything to do with writing, letters, words, shapes and sounds of letters and words on paper would be important to me. But what did I know? I was only 6.4 years old. All I knew was I did not want to write on the wrong side of the sheet.
So, I strategized in the way that kids strategize to get around things they do not like. And then, I had a plan.
I wrote normal-sized words using normal-sized letters on the right side of the paper, starting with page one. It was beautiful. I was happy. It was perfect. On the back of that sheet of paper, page two of my story, where it was all wrong to print any letter, or any word whatsoever, I printed really b i g, w i d e, f a t letters so that I could get to the nice clean sheet of paper faster. Two words took up a whole line. I used up the back of the good sheets very quickly.
We had to hand in our exercise books and the teacher took them all home to read and mark and the next week, when we sat in circle, the teacher said out loud that she liked my story and then asked me if I would read it out loud to everyone. Now, we had just moved here. I was the new kid in this class. I only read out loud at home. I didn’t know anyone yet. And so no, I did not want to read my story out loud. That was in my head. My mouth stayed shut.
I turned red hot in front of everyone, full of conflicting emotions: happy that the teacher liked it, mortified at the attention, silenced by eyes on me, desperately wanting the earth to open me up and swallow me whole. In that moment, it seemed to me not everything about making stories and writing them was fun.
Somehow, with a bit more coaxing from the teacher, I found my courage and voice to read my story. Was it a story she liked? Was she helping me with my shyness?
After circle, we had to walk up to the teacher’s desk to get our stories back. When she handed me back my book, she smiled and said, “next time, try to make the letters on the odd pages smaller so more words will fit.” I nodded. I didn’t know what she meant about odd pages, because the big wide fat letters and words were printed on even-numbered pages. I had to ask my mother. I was not pleased at being busted.
But it was all good. From that came my deep understanding that at times, writing can sometimes feel far better in imagination that in fact. That there is something that I can’t not do: write. That there is a sensuality to pulling words together and the act of handwriting and printing feels way better on some paper surfaces than on others.
From that also came a lifelong interest in books that you can write in and carry around and pencils and later, pens. I never travel without a blank book and at least two pens. Can never really have too many, except of course that you really can have WAAY too many. I confess to being a total snob about papers, pencil and pens.
And so started that relationship with paper and pens and pencils and blank writing books, and letters and the shapes of letters and words and sentences and paragraphs and writing and the writing process and with story-telling and with having a byline and having writing be public. While I abandoned fiction immediately after the adventuring girl story for non-fiction, my relationship with writing continues to this moment, a thousand years away from just yesterday when I was all of 6.4 years old.