Amanda Webster over at Write on the World wrote this week about her familial writing roots. While I read her post, I thought about my non-existent writing roots. I’m a little envious that Amanda lived with writers and storytellers in her family that could be supportive of her writing. It must have made a difference for her. So what was my experience?
As I’ve written in this blog’s About page, my parents and other family members enjoyed reading. My father showed me Beatrix Potter’s marvelous words in the book he read to me about Peter Rabbit. This sparked my curiosity about words and my desire to read them myself. Writing began with learning the alphabet and how to form the letters with a pencil, later a pen. I loved the act of writing with pencil and paper. To me, it was magic watching the pencil tip leave the lines on paper that formed the letters. I continue to love the act of writing with pen and paper.
Words are magic…in any language. To convey meaning through words, to communicate on paper as well as in speech, continues to fascinate me. I remember after taking all the Spanish classes I could in junior high and high school, I worked on fluency. It amazed me that I could convey the same meaning using the words of two different languages. I attained a practical fluency in German during college after living and studying in Vienna, Austria my junior year. I remember calling a German-speaking friend while at home over Christmas break my senior year and conducting the entire call in German. When I hung up, my mother who’d been present and listening to the entire call said to me that she hadn’t understood one word. Good, I thought. Privacy for phone calls at last!
I read voraciously through elementary, junior high, high school and college, and I continue to read like a glutton for stories. My parents encouraged my reading, and were proud that I did so well in reading and English through school. They did not encourage my writing. I began in elementary school, writing one-act plays and science fiction short stories. My family treated my efforts as a harmless hobby, as something for extra credit in school. They never took it seriously. I started writing a journal at 11 years old after reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My parents seemed to consider this normal behavior for a girl. While I was in college, however, my parents did their best to discourage any interests or artistic endeavors that might interfere with their plans for my future: to marry, produce grandchildren, and take care of them in their dotage. I majored in music in college which caused a huge uproar, with threats to withdraw financial support, threats to call my academic advisor, threats to disown me. I managed somehow to ignore all of it and went on to graduate with a BA in music.
When I finally returned to writing, I began slowly, taking a workshop here, a seminar there, a college extension writing class there. I worked fulltime for about 5 years before quitting to discover what I wanted to be when I grew up. By that time, I was writing a lot, but not very good at it. When I announced to my parents that I planned to pursue a writing career, I caused another huge uproar. My father got up into my face and stated, “You can’t write.” Which made me laugh, since he was the one who’d consistently complimented my writing. This time, they attacked using my older brother. While out running holiday errands and driving around, my brother told me that they (the family) “considered being a writer no better than prostitution.” Now that was a really interesting attitude for people who loved to read, and who gave each other books for birthdays and Christmas, and who made time each day for reading. There wasn’t anything they could do to stop me, of course. I was no longer dependent on them.
I began writing freelance, earning money writing ad copy. My father died, leaving me an inheritance that made it possible for me to work less and concentrate more on my writing. I took more classes. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. When I was accepted into a prestigious fiction workshop, my mother’s comment was, “Why would they accept you?” I laughed, but her words still stung. They didn’t stop me, however. I consider the years of my long apprenticeship, when I earned nothing or very little from my writing, also full of living, full of people, and full of learning and growth. Hardship and struggle has been known to do that.
Although she knew I’d written a novel, my mother never asked to read it or showed any interest in it at all. She had read a travel journal I’d written about a trip to Russia I’d taken and had enjoyed it very much, although she’d never tell me that directly. I heard through others that she’d told them how much she’d enjoyed it. I remember the last time I visited her, I went into her bedroom to get something she’d asked me to fetch for her, and noticed a pile of paperbacks in the corner near her bed. There must have been a hundred or more, looking as if she’d just thrown them there when she’d finished reading them in bed. They were all romance novels of one subgenre or another. This proved a revelatory discovery for me. I wasn’t writing the kind of stories that my mother read.
Today, I feel that I have moved far beyond my family and their small-minded attitude towards authors and writing. I have followed, and continue to follow, my soul’s desire. Writing roots? Yes, I have them, but they came from teachers who encouraged me, friends who supported my efforts, and other writers who understood. And from the certain knowledge that human beings love stories, indeed, probably cannot live happily without them, and that there will always be a human desire to read a good story, or hear it, or see it, or tell it, for as long as humanity exists.