In which a novelist describes how it was everything but books that lured her to the writing life -- touch, smells, comics, third-rate magazines, TV. Even a conversation overheard among boys.
I never wanted to be a writer. That is, I never had the notion I want to be a writer. I started the way other people did, writing compositions in school. I liked doing that; it pulled at my imagination with a sort of elastic tension I enjoyed. The same thing happened when I made up games with friends or put on plays with my brothers and sisters. There was something about elaborating on the world that gave great pleasure.
But I also liked art class -- art wasn't even like a class it was so good; you got to make things with your hands -- and I liked science. Who wouldn't? We got to go outside and collect polliwogs in the pond. We got to dissect frogs and see the secret goings-on inside. If I had thought about it, which I didn't because I was not practical, I would have pictured myself as an artist. I could picture painting in a studio with easels and brushes or, even better, out in a landscape with a box of paints.
But a writer? I had no picture in my mind of what being a writer was. How could one aspire to that? I'd never met a writer. What did a writer actually do? What did a writer have? Words? I did not come from a literary family, despite the fact that two siblings and one step-sister became writers, too. (And I would not be surprised if there were more to come.) My youngest sister, Eliza, who is a novelist, believes that part of it was our having to relay information among the siblings -- there were seven of us and a lot going on -- which encouraged our putting things into words.
At home the room where we spent the most time had books in bookshelves, but it was not called the library; it was called the TV room, and it was on the TV that our attention centered. As for our parents, my mother had written her college thesis on Christopher Marlowe, but I never heard more about it than that, and though my father was given to quoting Shakespeare or Tennyson as we dug sand castles or chipped ice off the driveway, his taste in books ran from Sidney Sheldon paperbacks to books on astronomy to historical biographies. What my parents did provide us with was an attitude of appreciation -- we, despite being children, were little beings capable of creating interesting things, whether they were thoughts or drawings or a good pass in a field hockey game. And there's no question that getting attention from a parent when you are one of seven was an incentive for doing something to get more.
My mother had a particular talent for celebrating life. She was a buoyant person. My father was decidedly more wry. Her enthusiasm for life and his skepticism about humanity presented two conflicting world views -- the sorting out of which has provided me with enough material for a lifetime. That and a restless imagination. In our large family there was a lot of make-believe. Our favorite game was called Let's Pretend. The plays we put on often had no audience; we would imagine one.
I mention these things because they were, along with the episodes of "Twilight Zone," "Dobie Gillis" and "Gilligan's Island," and later with the black-and-white movies from the '40s and '50s on the odd television channels, just as important developmentally as the first moments of reading The Catcher in the Rye. Comic books, too. I preferred the ones about normal people, like the Archie comics, which to a young reader were fascinating explorations into human behavior. Their short, episodic form, echoing the form of TV episodes, surely was influential in my choice of the short story as my initial and still most beloved form. Just as fascinating were the romance comics -- "Brad had changed since our first kiss . . ." -- with their pat morality amid delvings into human desire. Later came the racier True Confessions with the added heat of real sex -- and my first encounter with the confessional form, particularly piquant to a girl raised as a Catholic.
You often hear stories of the incubating writer who never took her nose out of a book; you couldn't drag her out of the library. I wasn't like that. That burrowing came long after. I was not a particularly precocious reader, though I remember the power with which certain books struck me. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, read to me by my mother, was about a little girl discovering a walled-in garden where she makes a friend. It was like the experience of reading! One went into a hushed and private place, put oneself there and learned about other people. I didn't really like fairy tales -- my mind was probably too much of a fairy already -- but preferred stories of real life.
What went on out there in the world? As an 11-year-old I particularly liked biographies -- Calamity Jane, Dorothea Dix, Geronimo, Helen Keller, Davey Crockett. It turned out there were more interesting men and women than one usually heard about in history class. Harriet the Spy left an indelible impression with her note-taking in her little book and her spying, both important qualities for a writer.
When I left home for boarding school I began to write on my own -- prose poetry, journal writing. It was the first time I had a room of my own, and I found that writing was a way both of being alone and of finding out what was going on inside of my self. Instead of doing homework, I wrote pages of stream-of-consciousness long into the night.
The novelist Jim Harrison has said that he is suspicious of any budding writer who is not drunk with words. I was completely inebriated. I was compelled to write; it became a compulsion. I wrote out of desperation. In the great turmoil and gloom and euphoria of adolescence, I found there was nowhere to express the chaos of emotions I was feeling, nowhere but in words. I began to rely so much on writing that I was living a double life -- one in the world and one on the page. The one on the page was more intense, more satisfying and for a long time much more real.
It was then that I was also beginning to be overwhelmed by the power of books. There was one moment I do remember when ambition entered into my feelings about writing. It was a spring day, and I was lying on the grass in front of the library in Concord, Mass. where I attended high school, reading William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. It was a book I had not been assigned but which had intrigued me when I heard some friends, boys from a nearby school, quote the line "Caddy. She smelled like leaves." Suddenly in the middle of a passage, the power of the words rose up and whacked me on the forehead. I felt the earth move as if a huge safe were being swiveled open and afterwards felt flushed and stunned as you are after sex. I'd had this reaction before -- to other books, and to music and painting, but this time as I stared at the light-green blades of grass in front of me, vibrating, I was aware that it was the writer who had done something to me. And I thought, I'd like to do that to someone back.
When I started to publish stories and then books, in a strange way these events seemed like flukes, moments of luck or fortuity when my compulsion to write just happened to intersect with real activities in the world. Being a writer was never what drove me; writing did. In fact, though it's odd to say, I don't think of myself as a writer. I agree with Chekhov, who hated labels and said he wanted simply to be a free artist. "Free artist" -- now, that's a label I wouldn't mind.
Everyone in my family now makes things -- books, paintings, sculptures, movies, photographs, decoupage. After I'd published a couple of books, my father, who wasn't one for commenting too much on the lives of his children, obliquely observed that writing was doing what you want and that it was a wondrous thing. "Imagine being able to do what you want all day," he said. It was a suggestion his children took.
I am very fortunate to make my living by writing, though I feel I got to this point through no more design than having followed an often bewildered instinct and by simply always writing. I believe that what an artist needs most, more than inspiration or financial consolation or encouragement or talent or love or luck, is endurance. Often the abstraction of using only words frustrates me -- I write on paper with a dipped pen and ink, and type on a manual typewriter in order to have some three-dimensional activities with my hands -- but again and again I discover how far words are capable of going, both in the world and on the page. The fact is, this side of the mind, nothing goes farther than words. With words I am able to do those things that first intrigued me when I was young, those things that made me feel most alive -- I am able to paint pictures, collect things from muddy ponds, dissect insides, make things up, put on costumes, direct the lights, inspect hearts, entertain, dream. And, if it goes well, I might convey some of that vitality to others, and so give back a drop into that huge pool of what other artists have, as strangers, given me: reasons to live.