Once, I sat in a cozy new cafe/bookstore in the heart of Tucson. I’d been hired to sell books on Saturday mornings. “Here,” the tall, thin, pale writer man who hired me said, as he handed me a copy of Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. “The best book about writing ever written. Read it.”
I had wanted to be a writer.
When I was in elementary school, I wrote a story about a washer and dryer set that came alive at night. I don’t know why these inanimate objects became my protagonists; when I think of that basement in our Rockville, Maryland, cul-de-sac faux brick ranch, I see myself sitting on the bottom steps, holding onto the wood railing above my head, peeking through to where, in front of our washer and dryer, my 12-year-old sister stood ironing her hair, flattening the long, dark waves of it.
My mother sent that story to some magazine, maybe Highlights? Nothing ever came of it.
I wanted to be a writer as a senior in high school when I sat up late, my little sister snoring in the twin bed across the small apartment room we shared, and hand wrote over and over my essay on Hamlet. My body tingled as I expressed what I’d figured out about him, Ophelia, the purpose of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I got As in that class, the only one I cared about that year. But my goal was not to become an English professor, not even a professional writer. I wanted to write, but I wanted to be a singer.
The winter when I was ten, my mom, my sisters, and I trudged through snow to meet the delivery truck, its driver adamant about not coming up the ice-encrusted lane. The four of us alone hauled our new electric organ wrapped in thin quilts to our farmhouse.
I sat hour after hour, night after night in the parlor, alone, hands on the keyboard, studying the black letters on the placard over the keys, picking out tunes: Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley, one note at a time with my right hand first finger. (Who was Tom Dooley and what had he done?) The room was quiet and dark, save for the gold dome of light from the green glass and brass lamp Mom placed atop the organ. Cold, sometimes I’d sit with a blanket wrapped around me. When I felt confident enough, I’d sing along, my voice holding notes strong during long pauses as my hands searched for the right keys.
I was runner up and second place and first place in my school’s talent shows. I was Maryland’s Junior Miss, kissed by co-host Andy Gibb, whose arms hung apelike to his knees. I was named the winner of the talent category for the entire United States. I wanted to be a writer the night in Ocean City, Maryland, when I sat up watching the next year’s pageant. The format had changed. I approved. Watched hungrily. Loved the winner. Wished, a bit, that I could have been there in Mobile, participating, celebrating. So afterwards, I wrote. I wrote a letter to the organization about how good the televised pageant was. About how proud I was to have been a part of it. Etc. And they published that letter in their next newsletter, saying it was the finest statement they’d ever received about America’s Junior Miss pageant.
I was Laurey, Daisy Mae, and Carrie Pipperidge. I won scholarships and had feature articles written about me in the papers. I was accepted at, and planned to attend, the Eastman School of Music where I would study voice because my teacher at the Peabody Preparatory School in Baltimore told me to. She assigned me 24 Italian Songs and later arias like The Willow Song in which a mourning Desdemona sings plaintively, “Salve, Salve.” It is a haunting and repetitive melody, and I loved to sing it.
During a master class in the spring of my senior year, my boyfriend, a musician himself, watches me. “You’re like stone up there,” he says quietly afterwards. I know my body, my face, are quiet on the outside even as I’m feeling so much on the inside. I want to be good at this desperately. I want everybody to think I’m good. I don’t know why it doesn’t show.
I didn’t know I was looking for a mother when, at 17, I met Jan DeGaetani on a cold December night in Baltimore. After her recital, I found myself backstage, standing behind the thick folds of curtains, facing a dead ringer for Mrs. Claus. She was kind. She invited me to write her about my upcoming audition at Eastman, where she was on faculty. She never stopped smiling. She was there, and then she was gone, out the stage door, a quick exit—I swear, in a skip—a devilish grin on her majestic face.
A month later, I’m standing before her outside Kilbourn Hall where I’ve just sung Mozart—”Deh vieni, non tardar” from the Marriage of Figaro. She thanks me for my letter. She tells me, yes, she will take me in her studio. She is no taller than I, but she seems to be, her white hair billowing, a beacon, her blue eyes, yes, twinkling, her smiling face against that orange triangle top with fringed bottom. I remember blue like sun-dappled water, white like silver, orange like the shag rugs of my sister’s new home when she moved out at 13. I remember Jan saying yes.
I close myself up in tiny rectangular cubicles on the fourth, fifth, sixth floors of the annex. I tape a piece of notebook paper over the one small eye-level window in the door. I prop my music on the upright piano. I roll my shoulders, my head, let it fall forward as I reach to touch my toes. I hum. Feel the buzz between my lips and teeth. I want to relax my jacked-up body. I appraise my posture in the long mirror opposite the piano. Unlock my knees. Lift my chest. Lay one hand over my diaphragm, the other at my waist and breathe in, imagining my middle encircled by a rubber tire. Try to push the tire out as I inflate. Then, hiss the air out through my teeth, a slow depression, watching my body deflate as I keep my diaphragm high. Touch the tissue between my rib cage, above my stomach, to see if it remains pliant, bouncy, to see if it holds.
I hear other singers in those hallways navigating scales on all the vowels, rising by half steps. I don’t sing scales so much. I jump right in, sing through a line of Schubert. I am learning to work with attention to every sound, every physical sensation, connecting mind, body, pitch, vibration, and resonance. To stay in the moment. To listen and notice and let what I experience teach me what to do next. “Be a student of yourself,” Jan intoned. She inspired. I am learning to follow the details.
I was a writer when I wrote a Christmas poem on the back of a used envelope for my beloved teacher who would die within the decade of an unmerciful disease. A woman who loved the poem I scribbled about music. About her. Who said to me the fall of my final year at Eastman, I believe people will want to hear your voice.
I wanted to be a writer not long after leaving Eastman when I read Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. I was living in New York City, writing lists: What do you love? What do you want to do? Where do you see yourself doing it? Confused. Unsure. Moving forward in the dark. A musician friend placed Cather’s book in my hands as we browsed shelves in a midtown store. Here is a singer’s story, an artist’s. Here is art told:
The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself—the life hurrying past us and running away, too sweet to lose?
I wanted to write during the several years I faced classrooms of teens and coached them, lured them into writing with the guidance of Peter Elbow, Ken Macrorie, Ann Berthoff. On a humid, hot August afternoon, I sat in the Groton, Connecticut, library reading the opening chapters of Macrorie’s Telling Writing, which, in just a few weeks, I’d start teaching to high school juniors. My heart thumping, my breath catching at his writing prompts, the tightening exercises, his saying exactly what she’d said—my teacher, Jan—what she offered me about process and creativity and self-knowledge and perception. Yes. Free writing is like singing a line. Waiting for what works, what makes my insides churn, and figuring out what’s happening, what it means, how to do it again and again and again. In that air-conditioned library room, all hushed tones, I wanted to stand up and shout. I know this. I know what this is. It’s all there is.
I wanted to write but did not write, could not write, after the birth of my son, who came whole and sound and good but sick, too, his immunity at war with his body. Too many hospital encounters—once, I almost lost him—years of sleepless nights, illness, illness, illness, and me spiraling into a darkness of my own, wanting to write about it all: a sick child, a perfect child. Becoming mother. Anxiety. Depression. A marriage under assault. A visceral knowing the first week of our baby’s life as I sat rocking him alone in our living room, this shift, a cleaving. Now we are this: Baby. Father. Me.
As I sat at the crate-like slab of kitchen table in another tiny apartment, I wanted to write. My little boy, not even two, on our frameless queen mattress on the floor watching Teletubbies, a respite, a spell of quiet. But I rumbled inside as I turned the final pages of Beth Kephart’s Slant of Sun, a small gorgeous book about raising her son, her boy with special needs, what it took. I wept. Because the writing was so beautiful. Because I was raising my own young boy with his own special needs. Because I wanted to do that, too, make the story live in words, and more, reach.
I didn’t write that day. Or the next. Or the next.
It would be a while before I would understand that I had always written, was a writer, would always write. Before I would learn to trust this.
My younger self in an ankle-length, sun-yellow dress, sat quietly in a Tucson café/bookstore, holding If You Want to Write. I opened the solid paperback. I glanced around to see if I was being observed. They wanted me to bus tables; I refused to bus tables. I was on the cusp of things. Not yet in a graduate program, not teaching, in a women’s writing group but not writing much on my own. Wanting, wanting, wanting to write, to be a writer now that I was not the singer I believed I should have been.
I turned to the first chapter: Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.
Turned the page: Be bold, be Free, be Truthful.
Turned the page: You must practice not perfunctorily, but with all your intelligence and love.
An invitation. A beckoning. A recognition.
Inside the front cover were two photos: Brenda Euland as a thirty-something woman in 1938 next to Brenda Euland, much older, face wrinkled beyond recognition, hair askew. 1983. She was still alive and writing as I’d finished my third year at Eastman. She died two years later at the age of 93. Young woman. Old woman. Loving and knowing writing all throughout.
Those early first years of teaching in Connecticut, I’d squirreled away in library carrels my borrowed copies of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. Followed her admonitions and invitations as I wrote in the same blue hard-backed journals my students carried from class to class. I wanted to write so much it hurt. I’d stood lonely hours before a mirror and a piano, singing to no one—to learn, to do something beautiful, to flame and burn. What else, this pursuit of clarity and beauty and purpose, be it in words on a page or in the air, if not for love?
Turned the page: Self trust is one of the very most important things in writing.
In all things. Everything.