This photo tells several important things about me. I grew up on a farm in Illinois. There was a great climbing tree in our yard. I was a redhead and the only girl in my family. My favorite color was yellow, and the clothes I wore proved that I was untouched by the radical social upheaval going on in the larger world. The year was 1968.
This was the same year I started to write. Here is my first poem. The occasion was somber; my great-grandma had just died.
My grandma was the sweetest one I ever had
When I went to visit her, she never got mad
I loved my grandma dearly, and grandma loved me, too
Grandma loved little children, just like me and you.
A writer in the making? There are signs. Something momentous happened, and my response, at six, was literary. I crafted words (with a neat aabb structure) and experimented with diction, both formal (loved dearly) and vernacular (got mad). Most importantly, I assumed that writing is communication, from me to you.
Sadly, I committed the classic writer's error: being pretentious. Not only was dearly a stretch of diction, it was an exaggeration of affection. I barely knew my great-grandmother. I caught the sadness rather than felt it. On infrequent visits to her house, she daunted me a little, the way silent, seated people often do. I later learned that Francis Grubb had been a lively and generous farm wife with six children, chores galore, daily bread to bake, and dusty threshers clamoring for pie. A writer should always be true to her subject. I still had a lot to learn.
A more mature piece (age 8?) was inspired by that climbing tree:
From my seat up in a tree
I saw a little bird, you see.
Around that tree he pecked and pecked
Making a meal of every insect.
Over the branches he did scurry
As though all he could do was hurry.
But when that little bird saw me,
Away he flew to another tree.
This was something of a pinnacle. Most of my poems after that were crayon on construction paper, folded into holiday cards. Then came school reports and an occasional little story. My mother saved my work in a cardboard box.
In high school, I had a vivacious English teacher named Miss Butterfield. One day she gave us this writing prompt: “Which is larger, the ocean or a toothache?” The only ocean I’d seen was a cornfield, and my teeth were fine, but I understood the assignment and dove in. Here was the vast world of metaphor, a full-force gale, a dare to explore the inner life, and hints that suffering—and fun—could be boundless.
Foolishly, I started college thinking I should be a doctor. I wanted to study people and to help them if I could. But when I realized that meant chemistry classes, I switched to the English department. There I met my first New Yorker. Professor Friedman’s opening lesson was this: “Ya stories are gonna be lousy.” Well, well, well. My first story was gonna prove him wrong. I composed a stirring vignette about a carnival worker. The ending drifted off poignantly, with the reader’s compassion trailing the sullen girl like a shadow as she drifted away from the loneliness of her job at the duck pond where unattainable prizes hung like the futility of her dreams and thus...and yet...until…. Professor Friedman handed back my story and snapped, “Next time, write about what ya know about.”
There were plenty of next things to know: marriage, motherhood, change, being the lonely outsider and the reluctant insider, the difference between good and great, and the inscrutability of providence. A person can surely learn these things while baking bread in a farmhouse; I happened to learn them through a dozen moves on five continents. In each place there were anecdotes to record, ideas to chase and a stash of papers in a box marked Hopeful.
Today we can publish whatever we write, whenever we want. No more envelopes or boxes; the work is bodiless. It pecks at the air, and away it flies, hovering in the atmosphere above readers just like me and you. But the perils are real. It is social upheaval, after all. There can be a false sense of permanence and the appearance of excellence which is really only justified margins and a cool font. Crayon on construction paper looks just as good and lasts for decades in an attic box.
So I tell myself that blogging is like sitting on a tree branch. You should wait quietly. Look for small things. Try not to move impulsively, because you can easily lose your balance and scare off what is real, what is true, what is worthwhile, and what is capable of carrying beauty wherever it goes.