Notes on Writing Real

Perhaps my love of writing began in second grade when we learned cursive. Holding a pencil fat as a broomstick, I listened as Sister Alma Francis introduced us to a soft green workbook eight inches long by four inches tall. “Children, this is your Palmer Method book.” She spoke barely above a whisper. “Open to page one.” And there I found rows of solid lines bisected by a dotted one. At the top of the page was an example of what that page’s activity would be. Black arrows illustrated how to sweep upwards to the dotted line, then curve back down and off to the right. So I began, loving the sweeping motion, a pas de deux of hand and pencil. So much more satisfying than the staccato punch printing had been. “Now dot your “i’s,” children,” Sister instructed us, soft as a dove’s coo. And with her words, I gave each upswept letter a tiny crown.

When I turned to the very next page, I discovered a new letter. Same balletic motion, only this time after beginning at the lower solid line, my pencil glided past the dotted one, up midway between it and the top—such a dizzying height—then back down to the bottom. Over and over. I created a string of them, predictable as soldiers marching on a field. Only these soldiers leaned slightly forward, as though bracing against a buffeting breeze. “Now, cross your letters at the top of the dotted line, children.” So each soldier got his cross—et voila!— a chorus line of “t’s” emerged. Well, that was a taste of euphoria. Especially when I realized that if I put the “i” with the “t”, I could write…a word.

A few years after I got the hang of all cursive letters—because, oh yes, we practiced throughout the lower grades—I started putting many words together, writing short stories, regaling anyone willing to listen to my exploits during rugged Girl Scout campouts, or frozen-bra slumber parties, or embarrassing breakups with boyfriends I hardly knew. Always my most dutiful listener, however, as I read from a notebook while sitting on the kitchen stool, was my mother. And even though her back was to me as she scoured oatmeal off an encrusted pot, or chopped celery for that night’s stew, or filled the dishwasher with the morning’s dishes, I could tell from the studied hunch in her back that she was listening.

And isn’t that at least part of why we write?

As a young adult, I acquired a typewriter from my Grampa Webster. A beautiful manual, maroon Sterling-Corona circa 1938. On it, I wrote the draft of my first novel—Even, After All the Years—during my own children’s naptime. For two hours every day, I’d clack away in my first-floor office and fly into the adventures of Angie and Hank as my little ones slept overhead. At least I think they slept, although I could never be sure because when I wrote, I became unaware of the reality surrounding me as I whirled off into a self-created dream. One where I got to channel the life of an obese Italiano who loves pasta fazool, or a troubled teen-ager who cuts to avoid emotional pain, or a grand century oak that provides shade for Guernseys and shelter for barred owls.

As I got older, I fell in love with metaphors and similes to express what I felt or saw. I could write, “her mouth looked like a torn pocket” or “even as the encroaching dawn was beginning to warm the earth, the cold of the forest floor set up camp inside his bones.” Kinda brings the image to light, doesn’t it? Further, I discovered that some words, all by themselves, contain expansive landscapes. Take “holy” for example, which houses a bend in its knee, a lowering of its head and a prayerful clasp of its hands to its chest. Which evaporates in the phrase “holier than thou.” Right? And certainly in the term “holy war”—oxymoronic and paradoxical though it is—which brings blood along with it on the tip of a raised spear.

Just as cursive had captivated me as a child, so did words, which came alive as they flowed from my brain’s wheelhouse down through my arm onto paper via pen or pencil. That balletic action again. Some words like “whimsy” and “minutiae” whirled aloft in silent anticipation of being pulled down and used. The power a single word contains came even clearer as I used “moistness” in an English office once. “Moisture be with you,” I called to the lone female teacher as she was getting ready to leave for the day. You know, a rhapsody on the theme of “Peace be with you” at Sunday services, or “May the force be with you” from Obi Wan Kenobi. Immediately, every one of the male teachers cringed, which sparked their sudden haste to pack their bags and head for home.

Powerful, right?

Some words choke me up with heartache or yearning: words like “moonlight” or “newborn” or “tiptoe.” Why those? Not sure. But I do know this. Words are a double-tipped arrow pointing the way inside a writer’s soul and the way outside to the wide-world’s expanse. An eachness of individual meaning subsumed by a wholeness of universality.

Beyond meaning, some words are powerful from the very sound they make. Consider Robert Hayden’s poem “The Whipping” as proof: “She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling boy/Till the stick breaks in her hand.” Can’t you just hear that stick thwacking that sorrowful child? Strikes [whack] strikes [whack], circling [whack], stick [whack], breaks [whack]. That “k” creates the sound of a thrashing for the boy, which evokes greater pity in us because in hearing that stick we feel its crack. On the other hand, words like “coo” [sorry Sister Alma Francis] and “bubbly” present us with experiences through either their sweet or effervescent verve.

Which simply knocks me out.

Which gets me to wondering why certain words—like “handkerchief” or “homestead”— harken back to a hearth in an earthen-floored nineteenth-century cabin. Could it be that the very exhalation from the alliterative “h” contributes to a deep sigh of contentment?

Perhaps.

Writing fiction is the powerful overlord of imaginary lands where characters and their conflicts live, which allows a writer to explore her own personal issues: you know, like psychotherapy without the fee. As I test the mettle of one of my people, I begin to explore my own beliefs and fears. One of the beauties of writing fiction is that no matter the struggle I put my players in, I can choose how he or she will triumph or fail or walk away with nary a backwards glance. And in those excursions, I find myself examining what I’d do—even if it’s different than what he or she would.

For me, that’s soulful stuff.

Speaking of soul, I’ve always loved E. M. Forster’s famous quote: “How can I tell what I think before I see what I say?” Perhaps that’s why I journal most every day. Taking the temperature of my inner being centers me: I examine what’s bringing on a maelstrom or providing me with calm. Just like Forster, I look at what I’ve said to understand what I think. And oh, what a brave new world that explores! Whether scribing using tittled “i’s” and soldiering “t’s” or delving into the finger-tipped magic of a qwerty-keyboard, I fly high when I write—into the flow of something wonderful, something far beyond my linear brain.

Try it some time. Trust me: it’s glorious.

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