I have always been a voracious reader, once my eyes began to form an understanding of letters, then words, then sentences, then paragraphs – I was hooked. I read and read and was offered children’s books by teachers and librarians and I would pretend to read them but there would be forbidden tomes hidden inside Dr. Suess – like collections of Dear Abby columns and hints from Heloise and the greatest of all the household saints – Erma Bombeck.
I don’t know why but when I was a child I was obsessed with the inner lives of housewives. I wanted to know what they struggled against, what they wanted, how they kept their homes and husbands and secretly and openly hated their children. These books scared me and enlightened me and made me grow up fast and furious.
I first learned of my writing ability when I was about 10, when my class got in trouble for unruliness as a group and our punishment was to write essays about what we had done. This I take a major issue with – teachers, do not use writing as punishment. It’s damaging and crippling and ruthless and cruel. Do not make kids write sentences over and over and over and over as you will make them hate writing.
Writing is an art and a gift and a privilege and a lifesaver and if children learn that it is meant to be torture they will never discover that. They will forever associate writing with cramped hands and blurry vision and there will be a generation of writers whose writing could have saved the world that will never come to be because you couldn’t think of anything better to keep them in line.
Because of writing sentences as punishment I incorrectly hold pencils. I lay them in between my second and third finger rather than gripping them between my thumb and index finger. It’s really weird and fucked up looking and I did it because i had to write sentences so much when I was a kid from repeatedly getting in trouble and so my hands would actually bleed.
Thankfully my father let me use his typewriter or I would have never have blossomed as a writer like I eventually did. And of course thank god (Mac) for powerbooks. This machine kills fascists. The essay that made me realize I was a writer was handwritten. It was a scathing criticism of the teacher and the values held by the school. It was personal and it was nasty and it was sarcastic and I wish that I could print here what was written there, but the essay was handed in and then sent directly to the principals office along with yours truly some hours later.
The principal, i think her name was Shirley Merrill, a Nervous Nellie of a woman, all bones and tight skirts and white turtlenecks and gold chains and what I am sure was some kind of frothy blonde wig that did nothing for her looks except make the cartilage in all her joints stand out in greatly unflattering relief breathed hard as she read my essay aloud back to me.
She read passages, which I cannot remember now (damn I wish I did) and then said, “I must admit this is good writing but….” and then proceeded to try to punish me verbally, but not having really anything to say except compliments, couldn’t really go anywhere with it. She knew I was smart and she couldn’t punish me for it. She knew what I had produced was satire, but she didn’t understand it and she didn’t know what to do with it and so she just kind of sputtered out. I left the principals office and wandered in the weird dead space between the classrooms and the teachers lounge and took a long way back because I treasured the silence of the hallways and the kids all in their desks and me free to roam without even a heavy wooden hall pass or a need to go to the bathroom.
Later, I stood by the teachers lounge where an intense cluster of polyester clad men and women who were younger than I am now sat together and gossiped in hushed voices as they smoked More and Pall Mall cigarettes (!!!!!!). I listened as they read my essay aloud to each other. I heard my words bandied about and there were accusations of plagiarism, but that was argued because the insults were too specific, too spot-on – where could i have copied them? They laughed at my jokes and my astute, tight as a drum writing and they agreed that I should be punished, but they were at a loss trying to figure out how.
I believe I paid for my indulgence with a call to my parents, who didn’t really seem to care about it because they were just too tired from working day and night, and some afterschool detentions which consisted of me sitting in an empty classroom with a physical education teacher (later fired for allegedly sleeping with a student) silently doing my homework until the sky grew dark. So no big deal really and for once I didn’t even get molested.
In the end, I felt like I won something. I realized that my words had power. The way I put them together had a charge and an electricity and an energy that I could use to hurt and maim but also praise and worship. I learned that pleasure of committing ideas to paper and that the things I thought in my head had little trouble on their way through my heart and into my hands. I was a writer then, and I am one now. And I am good.