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?
Of course.

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, 9.0 out of 10 based on 2 ratings

  • http://slowdancejournal.wordpress.com February 8, 2011 at 5:44 am

    No wonder we do the same job, even find our way to the same kitchen table once a week to discuss our writing–we had the same childhood (except that in mine school was more than a suggestion, the multiplication tables mandatory).

    Like you I followed a meandering path to becoming a writer. I worked for years as an illustrator and painter–the most interesting “real” job I ever had was as the illustrator for the Baltimore Zoo. Art prepared me for writing in that it trained me to observe and record what I saw. The record left by each discipline is different, but the act of selfless observation is the same–one of the things I love best about both writing and drawing is that I disappear as the thing I am responding to fills my consciousness.

    Nature or nurture? I’d say both. I am by nature a watcher. I have always felt there is a little space between me and the rest of the world, as if I am here to notice. My mother was a fiction writer so I observed the job firsthand. Here are two things she said that still inform my writing. On writer’s block: “You can’t always write something good, but you can always write something.” On editing. “I am not a great writer–but I’m a great rewriter.”

    Age? I started writing seriously at 35. It is what it is. “Career” is something the world imagines for us. As you point out in your post “life” is what matters. Uncoupling “success,” over which I have no control, and “good writing,” which I can at least strive for, I’d say that age is an advantage. I’ve seen more, thought more and weathered more as a writer with some mileage on her.

    Beautiful post, Leigh!

    Adrian Fogelin

    • Leigh Muller February 8, 2011 at 9:48 am

      Wow, we really DID have the same childhood; my mother wrote fiction too. Four hours a day, religiously. But I’d trade my first job as a clerk typist for your zoo job any day.

      You didn’t mention it, but you also sing and we hear that in the rhythm of your words. Isn’t it amazing when you think of it? Ink on a paper, lines and curves on a screen, and yet if we do our job correctly, those scribbles paint colors and have scent and keep time. As the writer, of course we see and hear in our own words what we attempt to convey, but what about the reader? Without their willing imagination and ability to suspend this world and join us on our fictional journey, our words would be only ink falling on paper.

      I suspect a writer’s ability to take a reader by the hand and pull them along improves with each year they live. Writers and readers search for common truths. It takes years of life to find them.

      • Leigh Muller February 8, 2011 at 10:00 am

        Adrian, your mother makes two of the cardinal points: write every day, and don’t sweat the first draft but re-write until it shines. But your suggestion to concentrate on what we can control — writing well as opposed to the what ifs and if only’s of career success — needs to be written in large bold letters and taped over every writer’s desk.

      • http://slowdancejournal.wordpress.com February 8, 2011 at 5:10 pm

        I think of readers as my co-authors. I know that the images in their minds are only partly mine, that they are seeing things out of their own experience. Case in point, I read the Lousia May Alcott books at the same time I was in love with the Beatles. Any young male characters in her books became the Beatles–most often George (my favorite). I suspect the picture in the mind of LMA was somewhat different.

        • Leigh Muller February 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm

          That’s too funny, Adrian. Come to think of it, most of the heroes in my head do bare a strong resemblance to Timothy Dalton.

        • tgumster February 8, 2011 at 6:21 pm

          Your mention of Louisa May Alcott reminded me of her little known essay, “Transcendental Wild Oats,” in which she pokes fun at her father’s failed Utopian community, Fruitlands. I found it today at: http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/transcendentalism/ideas/wildoats.html. Truly, I think she would have appreciated your Beatles images.

          • Leigh Muller February 9, 2011 at 9:51 am

            What an interesting find! Thanks, Tgumster.

  • Mary Lois Sanders February 8, 2011 at 8:13 am


    Adrian drew me to the water and I’m drinking. Love your post. I’m over 60 and began writing seriously when I was 42! Who knew? I came to writing from two directions – my parents were writers, though academincally oriented, and my first “career” was in music: singing, acting and directing. As I think about it, in light of your observations, without the years of moving people around the stage, designing sets, and playing with dialogue, I don’t think my characters would actually live their lives on my pages.

    Thanks for the reminder – old writers unite!

    Mary Lois

  • Mary Lois Sanders February 8, 2011 at 8:14 am

    BTW, I’m adding your blog to my blog stream – http://myotherzone.com. I think my readers would like yours, too!


    • Leigh Muller February 8, 2011 at 10:22 am

      Thank you, Mary Lois! I’m headed over to yours as soon as I grab a cup of coffee.

  • Leigh Muller February 8, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Thanks, Mary Lois; I’m happy you found us. And I believe you’re spot on; acting, directing, and writing appear to require the same sort of process. Like acting, we can’t have our characters say, “I’m nervous,” or “I’m sad,” we have to give them gestures that show their emotions. So we give them telling details: we have them tear little holes in their napkins, slump in their chairs. But to create these telling details, I have to close my eyes and think, “What do I do when I am nervous or sad?”

    Of course, my personal repertoire is small. So I search crowds in the airport for body postures, the table of people next to me in the restaurant for new gestures. Each day I spend part of my lunchtime watching old movies and studying the actors for new ways to let the physical express inner emotion.

    Given your history, you are way ahead of the game, even if you aren’t a freshly minted writer of 21.

  • tgumster February 8, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Beautiful piece, Leigh, refreshing in its tone and pace. Always, there is honesty and integrity–“every piece of fiction is true.”

    You remind me of my school days, which I regarded more as elective than compulsory. Every year there was the “will she graduate” conversation, and I did, 1/4 short of a credit in gym, gladly overlooked by the record keepers and proudly defended by me.

    I was a reader–had been since I was three years old thanks to the patience and love of a deaf aunt–I found worlds so much better than mine. In my heart, I wanted to be a writer but the only time I wrote was when I felt bad or when I was in trouble. Writers wrote about beauty not about life.

    By eighteen, with my sham high school diploma and my “diaries” under my arm–I moved into my first apartment, still armed with writing and reading when the world was just too hard. It would take my reaching the quarter century mark before I entered college and felt the thrill of the first day of school.

    Now, at almost 59, I am a writer, and I like the label. It defines me, as do books, for I am a reader, still. In this way and that, writing and reading have taken me to careers up one side and down the other.

    It’s been interesting, so far.

  • Leigh Muller February 8, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    Thank you, Tgumster. I’ve been alternating on Tuesdays; one week has covered a specific element of craft, while the next has focused more on the writing life. Today y’all got the life but don’t worry, next week it’s back to the concrete. And I have a feeling it’s that last one that will win out; I’m a nuts and bolts kind of gal.

    Beauty strokes the senses, but it is life that pierces our souls, gives meaning to our existence, and a more poignant appreciation for the beauty that comes after. You always mention honesty and integrity. Those require both the pretty and the obscene. But you already know that; it’s stated in the openness of your comments. Every bit of your history is as unique as it is moving. I look forward to reading your work one day.

  • http://slowdancejournal.wordpress.com February 8, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    I would like to second Leigh’s comment, Karen. I too would love to read your writing. — Adrian

  • tgumster February 8, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    For a writer, there is no greater honor than to have another writer wish to read her work. Thanks, Adrian and Leigh; it renews my vigor!

  • Leigh Muller February 9, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Vigor double-time, tgumster. We’re anxious!

  • Susan Heyboer O'Keefe February 12, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Incredible post, Leigh, and incredible comments. There is something almost pure in my relief hearing other writers talk, not about craft, but about the secret “everything else” that upholds their every written word.
    Adrian, yes, writers so often feel that space between themselves and other people and so they’re watchers. But when you say you’re there to notice, it’s like a blessing for those people: someone is there to notice them, to notice the unnoticed and maybe help them see their own importance.
    Nature or nurture? I’ll say that I was born a writer, and that the writing itself nurtured me, was something that filled the space between the watcher and the crowd. It’s funny. I’m super shy, but I WATCH, and so the fact that I make eye contact misleads people when I then don’t interract with them. They don’t see shyness–they see snottiness, snootiness, fierce intimidation, and so on. But all I’m doing is watching.
    “Beauty strokes the senses, but it is life that pierces our souls, gives meaning to our existence, and a more poignant appreciation for the beauty that comes after.” Leigh, there’s nothing that can be added to that.
    Too many other comments from everyone that go right to the many souls inside each of us.

  • leigh February 12, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Thank you Susan. Roadhouse is graced with talented wordsmiths and a generosity of human spirit I feel honored to know.

    Your thought about the secret, inner, “everything else that upholds our every written word” vs. craft is something I hadn’t considered, but is really at the heart of what we do. We spend a lot of time perfecting our skill, but in the best writing, craft is invisible, a slight of hand. Its only purpose is to let the most secret chambers of our being appear, unobstructed.

  • Rhonda Burns May 2, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    I LOVE this. :)

  • vaughn college April 26, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    Amazing! I just have to talk about this with my people today from school.

    They’d be serious as we’ve talked about it lately plus it
    turned out that nobody’s positive in regards to the subject
    matter. http://bit.ly/2k2ADvw

  • Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.