At night, I worry about my mother’s teeth. I fear the gargoyles in Westminster Abbey holding their teeth in their paws and howling in that odd agony specific to dental health. She flosses, I’ve checked.
As the daughter of an artist and a pilot, my earliest experience with self-expression was uniquely visual and innovative. While other children were given a coloring book or set in front of a television, my mother cleared our dining table and covered it in shaving cream, our hands and imaginations our only tools. All in good fun, my siblings left creation to the table where it was easily wiped clean. I, however, began to see canvases everywhere; the white couch was the first to go, executed via finger painting with chocolate pudding. Food was an obvious medium, as were sheets, blankets, etc. Moving out of the suburbs and onto four acres of unspoiled Blue Ridge wonderland opened my eyes to the perfect visual mess of nature. To this day, I hold the image of those forests in my mind with unadulterated love; I named my favorite trees and rock piles, collecting characters with which to fill my wandering mind. All this was merely my soul’s preparation for that undiscovered lifelong dream, which caught me up unawares like a spotted gecko in young chubby fingers. My brother was flipping through Where The Wild Things Are, when I fell into the dream from which I’ve never awoken; the thrill of hearing a word and seeing the truth in your mind’s eye. Suddenly everything seemed to be locked into harmony, a silent dance for the soul. Each word unfolded secret worlds; this was it, my perfect medium. Language, with its endlessly reinventable forms, grasped my heart tenderly and desperately as if I’d been a wild thing.
Thus my love affair with Writing began, struck like a match at 4 years old and never extinguished. Over time our relationship has evolved, often coerced into new forms and directions as life delivered new preoccupations to my feet. Fear and Loneliness came early, as long trips meant constant goodbyes and reunions with my father. I knew where Depression hid each time he left; it hung in my mother’s eyes each morning before school and each night before bed, when Aaron and Hannah and I switched off sleeping next to her each night. Writing swiftly adapted these small hurts into whimsy, romanticizing my parent’s story despite absence. As time went on the absence seemed to come home with him, as if flying had emptied his bones of marrow and replaced it with an intangible distraction.
A change of scenery, then, an infusion of marshland and Spanish moss to animate the ghost of their marriage. Writing ran with this new world, rich with marronnage and wizened oaks, and I threw myself into her believing language could save us all. And yet Depression crept back in, and distance carved hairline fractures like tidal creeks in our bones. I was thirteen when we shattered apart, when my eldest brother, my anchor Aaron, was flooded and torn away. Suicide is a sooty rag which wiped our eyes blind, and no matter how hard we fought, we could never locate our target. My parent’s held onto Hannah and I like oxygen masks in a plane crash, but when the salt water began to chill our feet they looked at each other and had to let go. We’ve all survived on different rafts. My mother was carried away on Art, my sister on Religion, my father on Logic. Writing bore me to Baltimore, an Atlantis for the drowned and drowning. I’ve never stopped searching for Aaron, I hope to find him again clinging to magic, which perhaps carried him far away. Perhaps even to the island of the wild things.
The rule is not to get too sentimental. Never confess love, never cry, never think about the deceased, never focus on only the good in the world. All of the ways we live fulfilling lives; don’t let them show when it’s time to write. Instead, start the scene with the ashes of the bridge filling up empty sneakers. Start with something breaking, a relationship ending, a high school student’s head in the toilet, a cigarette burn in a cashmere sweater. Let everyone know that their way of living is hypocritical, remind them they don’t care that the world turns itself or that blood is 83% water.
The rule is not to be lonely, unless it is romanticized. A woman cannot simply lay in bed alone and wish the ceiling would collapse on her. No. The ceiling must be the wooden floorboards of the room above her, filled with thick cracks, so that while she is lying in bed alone, she can hear the family above her. She knows the weight of the husband’s steps and can measure the wife’s anxiety by the follicles of dust that shake down. She knows when the pregnancy tests turn up negative, because she isn’t the only one trying to keep quiet when she sobs at night.
Writers magnify every emotion, each a dead leaf waiting to be burnt under the lens. They use their own, painted over with stage makeup or mud, and let them fill up the hearts of other people. The rule, then, is never to be seen. Play a game of hide and seek with your reader, tell them you will count to fifty and they had better be hidden. Then leave them to play your game on their own, taking only what you’ve given them. Get a cup of coffee. Answer a crossword puzzle. Wait and see how long they will believe what you have told them, their hands over their eyes.
Sometimes, it’s easy to become nostalgic for your childhood. You thought that every writer wondered about all the foods a green caterpillar could eat, and imagined their toys coming alive. You thought it was romantic to be unloved, and to sit alone on the swing sets at recess, kicking your penny loafers in the gravel and humming a song about birds. And maybe it was, but no writer would see that. They would see that you were scuffing up your shoes and think you probably caused your mother endless anxiety. Then they would decide you were mistreated at home and maybe your mother didn’t care because she was a meth addict and then they would throw in something about suicide, because, why not? Everything hurts and no one is happy. How could they be, when there is a child outside in the cold all by herself? What does that say about the world she lives in?
The rule is not to let their criticism hurt you. The rule is to listen to what they have to say and remember that they are probably right. The old woman dying was, indeed, abrupt. Old women don’t just die. It doesn’t matter if all she had to live for was watering her ferns, she should have at least kept living, kept on watering those damn ferns of hers. Her death is a crutch. You were lazy. Because, you know, that’s what lazy writers do. They snap their fingers and kill their own creations. So, in a way, the rule is not to be lazy.
Listen. Writing is an easy mask to wear. It’s comfortable, it changes form. It doesn’t take much to become someone else. Someone else who can say what they want, be numb to emotions – their own and those around them. They don’t have to take criticism. They don’t have to follow rules. They aren’t the ones writing. Maybe that is why a little girl would be attracted to fairy tales and poetry; the literary equivalent to carnival masks.