65 With Vitamins
Growing up in my family, attendance at school was merely a suggestion, which is odd because my grandmother founded and ran one. But year after year of report cards reflect this; I never missed fewer than 30 school days a year. My family’s not much into structure.
Instead, I stayed home and wrote poetry or painted portraits, picked blackberries, devoured books. More importantly, I sat at the feet of some powerfully gifted storytellers and listened so hard I forgot to blink. It’s no way to raise an accountant, but it is a fine way to raise a writer.
No doubt an FMRI would confirm that the math side of my brain is the size of a pea. Looking back, it’s pretty obvious it died of starvation while I was busy stuffing the creative side with cake. I never memorized the multiplication tables, or the capital of Macedonia, but for six years I did quite intently study plies and pas de bourrees while wearing a variety of black leotards and pink tights. Each Tuesday for nine years I climbed the five steps to Miss Varnedoe’s front porch to practice arpeggios and glissandos on one of two antique grand pianos in her drawing room. Of course the heady possibilities of a box of Crayola 64 led inevitably to twelve years of easels and oil paints, copper etchings and acid baths, and a number of interesting scars accumulated while carving woodblocks.
Oddly, at no point did I consider taking a creative writing course because I knew for a certainty I wasn’t a writer. Never mind I was obsessed with scribbling terrible poetry in the margins of my elementary school notebooks, losing middle school boyfriends for sending them (and I quote) “A freaking fourteen page letter about a typing class,” editing my high school newspaper, winning a couple writing contests, and practically being begged by my college English professors to switch my major from art to writing. Had they lost their minds? I couldn’t write. Writers had imagination. Quick repartee. They could drink more than a sip of wine and hold it.
I finally figured it out the year I turned forty. That’s right. Four decades. Four X ten. For those of you who don’t know how the writing business works, this is even worse than you think. Writer years are briefer than dog years. By the time I’d climbed off the dunce stool and taken off the funny hat, I was the writing equivalent of liver-spotted, toothless and bald.
Would I like to have those decades back?
Do I think they were wasted?
Not one bit.
Because any honest writer will tell you: every piece of fiction is true.
I’ve never been held at knifepoint, or watched my husband die, or waded hip-deep in water and cockroaches inside a sinking ship, but when I write those scenes, the words that come are drawn from the accumulation of my life. Something I saw here, or heard there, or felt deeply at that one, specific moment in time will fit the scene either visually or emotionally, and I will pour all that memory and feeling into my work. To the reader the scene will feel real, because emotionally and in physical detail, it is. I’ve simply mined the collection of people, experiences, and emotions I keep shelved in my subconscious.
So when people tell me I am a visual writer, I bless all those years I spent carefully observing the world around me as I drew, and painted, and sculpted in Playdough. I’m grateful to Miss Varnedoe who sat so patiently at my side on the piano bench teaching me rhythm, and discipline, and circling back to the heart of the piece. And if there is anything akin to grace in my words, I owe it to the arabesques, and pirouettes, and leaping dancers who showed me how to land without a thump.
That bible Baptist grandmother who ran a school? She shortened her skirts, died her hair blond, and opened a nightclub in Savannah when she was 72. My grandfather on the other side? Retired from the railroad, took up oil painting and wrote his first book at 77. He continued to write and paint and cultivate new varieties of camellias until his sudden and completely unexpected death at 98. My mother is 84. She paints and travels and has an intellectual curiosity that can’t learn enough fast enough. So becoming a writer at 40? I figure that gives me almost 60 years to follow this passion wherever it may lead.
65 with vitamins.
Questions For The Day:
- How has learning acting, music, dance, or visual arts improved your writing? Which other areas of study have helped?
- Nature or Nurture: Were you born to write or did circumstances lead you to it?
- How has being an older/younger writer helped/harmed your writing career?
65 With Vitamins,