What Writing Means to Me
Writing exists in my life free of neurosis or attachment. It has brought me a little fame and money but mainly it has given me purpose, a way to process what sometimes seems impossible to accept or forgive. It has also given me a way to help others. As a writing teacher and coach I have witnessed students discovering their stories whether based on fact or conjured from dreams and imagination. Writing was a way to change the realities of my childhood. While my parents were brilliant, funny and loving they were also narcissistic and self-destructive. My father’s dedication to his writing and to the writing of others as a respected literary critic made several things clear to me when I was very young. The importance of books was manifest while the writing of them was potentially a form of torture. Witnessing my father’s disappearance into his own writing with the subsequent publishing and frequent frustration when his novels were remaindered convinced me that the life of a writer was a life I wanted to avoid. But, I also was completely transformed and addicted to reading. We lived in the country and my parents forbade extensive television watching. And so, I read. The walls of our house were lined with bookshelves containing all of the books my parents had acquired from their writer friends, their years at universities and my father’s work as an academic and a literary critic. I was lonely and angry and wanted to escape so I read and I wrote and I dreamed about the world outside while I tried to articulate what I hoped to find when I finally left home.
Although I’d never considered becoming a writer I marked every significant occasion with poetry or a story. I collected my poems and made a book of them and I summoned my parents to listen to my first short story rich with every cliché I had fallen in love with. It actually started: “They were two ships passing in the night. Her eyes were blue as cornflowers, his hair was dark as night.” They groaned and laughed but I was unshaken in my love for language, for poetry and prose, the more morbid the better. My mother was a working architect and so I passed the time after school before she returned home reading aloud to our housekeepers, obituaries and morbid poetry like The Highwayman dwelling on the self-sacrifice of Bess, the innkeeper’s black-eyed daughter who shoots herself to warn her lover not to cross the bridge to his death.
Because our public high school was so academically weak, I was sent to the local private school in tenth grade. By then I had lost much of what marked my childhood, my love of self, my trust in other people and my hope for future happiness. I had been raped by my first real date and had started to drink. By fifteen I felt myself as something worthless and dangerous, writing was the only place my self-hatred and lack of self-confidence disappeared. There was a teacher who wrote on one of my papers-“Perhaps your punctuation and handwriting could be improved but you write with a passion and truthfulness that is stunning.” I never forgot that praise. I was very unhappy and it gave me a reason not to give up. I think that comment may have also inspired my own future as a writing teacher.
I majored in history at Rutgers because my father was a professor in the English department and I didn’t want to be recognized. But I took amazing classes in English, Richard Poirier’s Intro to Shakespeare informed a lecture hall of blushing freshman that almost everything was about sex, I read Germinal in my history class and had a minor breakdown sobbing in my wonderful professor’s office that I felt my existence was meaningless, that Zola’s account of the starving French miners was what writing was about and I was just a spoiled brat from a privileged family. He told me I needed to take my writing seriously and if I wanted to change the world I should use any means necessary. I was trying to be an actress then, anything other then writing. He had actually come to see me in a production of Pinter’s The Birthday Party and he told me it was an act of courage and generosity to be an artist.
I graduated in 1979 and the recession for everyone but the Wall Street tycoons had rendered most of us with liberal arts degrees wholly unemployable. I ended up working at a battered women’s shelter taking care of the battered women’s traumatized children trying to help them feel safe again and forget the carnage they had witnessed. I used to come home from the shelter and pour myself a huge glass of wine and cry. But I also wrote about the children and I wrote about the fact that I had witnessed my parents fighting and thought my father would kill my mother because he did hurt her and I was little and terrified. It made it very difficult to detach. Writing helped me accept my own pain and also bear witness to the kids who came and went, each small person asking for unconditional love while I struggled to survive my own self-destructive grief.
And so on. I got sober for the first time at 25 and the man who forced me into that meeting told me I had to get sober because I was going to write books. During the year that followed I began to heal but most of what hurt remained. Eighteen months into that time my eldest sister was killed by a drunk driver and died after a week on life support. She had been a beacon for me, a wild child in college who had settled down, become a wife and mother and was earning a PhD at Rutgers. My reaction was to starve myself and to try and disappear. I felt enormous guilt for surviving, that I was not the daughter my parents really wanted, that I would never be able to be healthy or happy again. I wrote, but it was really just a way to scream on paper.
After a brief, violent, loveless marriage I returned to AA, started therapy, moved back into New York City with a very poorly paid job in publishing, and began to write what would turn out to be my first novel, Parting is All We Know of Heaven, about a girl whose sister is murdered, whose heart is broken, who tries to die but survives. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought it was a short story but it didn’t end. I think what made it so hard to see this as writing a novel was how it felt. I was writing and crying and raging and begging someone to explain to me how it was possible to describe grief without actually killing yourself. But it had to be done. I also felt like a vampire finding sustenance in the death of someone else. I had no thought of publishing. I wrote long hand and then typed the thing up. I went to AA, worked and wrote. My job suddenly became really awful. The woman I worked for had started to lie and as her assistant I was expected to protect her. When I protested, she fired me. “Now you can go write your novel,” was the last thing she said.
At first I desperately searched for a new job in publishing but then the writing took over and I got a job as a waitress and wrote while waiting for my drink and food orders and wrote on the train and wrote early in the morning. One day I ran into an agent I had worked with and she got me to admit I was writing “something.” She asked to see it and immediately sold it to a large publishing house after I retyped the 300 pages four times. I started an MFA at Brooklyn College and was given a teaching fellowship and a class made up of first generation Haitian immigrants who taught me how to teach writing. I loved it. When my novel was published I sobbed to my therapist, “I thought this would make my father love me,” and she smiled and said, “You wrote a book.” I was still sober.
And so I did. And so I continue. I don’t know how to define what writing means to me except like my son and my teaching, it is sacred and always perfect like bad yoga because it remains pure in its flaws. I come back to the notebook, the keyboard, and the book, and there it is again. I have never stopped. There was a thirteen-year gap between the birth of my son and my third novel, but I kept writing and sending things to my agent and being rejected and sometimes feeling despair. I feared motherhood had removed whatever magic allowed me to immerse myself in words but really it was only my son’s early childhood when I was trying to wrestle back my identity as “momma” while nothing had ever felt so good. Except writing. I dedicated Stone Garden to Luke, but all my books have come from the source, my sister, the ocean, some better part of me that has courage and humility enough to fail and to hope. I believe that writing might change the world for the better. It has saved my life.