I always wanted to be a writer, not of back-page gossip columns, or of product descriptions for catalogs, but of fiction, bona fide. The only time I ever said so, Daddy told me I was ridiculous and that I needed to devote my time to finding a worthwhile profession. He said I didn’t want to grow up being one of those worthless whores who sponged their way through life, living off some man the way my Mama did. He didn’t mean to call Mama a whore. If you got to know Daddy, you understood he just had a knack for choosing the most awful words available at the most inopportune of times.
Daddy said writing was for people with their heads in the clouds and I needed to keep my feet on the ground if I wanted to keep them out of the air. If ever I needed a dream killed, I knew I could always count on him to kill it. But writing was a dream I didn’t want to die, so I never mentioned it to him again.
I could never imagine something more exciting than to be able to create a whole world that didn’t exist until you breathed life into it with your words. To be able to take someone else into that world with you, well I was sure that was the most powerful talent I could conceive of. What worthwhile profession I was ever going to choose that could supplant such an incredible dream was beyond me.
My life growing up wasn’t much like most other girls’. I suppose many of them might make the same claim. The truth is, at the time, I didn’t know enough about other girls to see my life as being so different.
I was an only child. Neither of my parents really cared to spend any time with me. I was only allowed to play with friends when Daddy approved of their parents first and Daddy rarely approved of anyone but himself. As a consequence, I had very few of them and I grew up mostly keeping my own company.
Ironically, I was discouraged from fantasies of any kind, whether it was talking to myself, or playing games of pretending, or what have you. Fantasy was playing with the devil, a direct violation of God’s first commandment that would lead me straight to Hell. So the fantasies that were my only real entertainment stayed locked up in my head.
I loved reading books, especially science fiction and fantasy, but any book that wasn’t assigned to me by a teacher, had to be read in secret. Even many of the assigned ones drew distasteful remarks from Daddy.
It wasn’t until I got my first sign that I was allowed to own a diary. Mama bought me my first one, along with a box of tampons she never did explain how to use. I think she probably gave me a diary hoping it would keep me from talking to her about things, like tampons, she wasn’t comfortable with talking about.
I named her Sarah, but I didn’t dare ever say so. Sarah was light pink, embossed in silver flowers with one of those big buckle locks. She came with a pretty little key with rhinestones on it that I wore for a necklace. Many more diaries to come would all share her name.
Why I was allowed the privacy of my diaries is something I still don’t understand, but with only one cruel exception, they were for my eyes only. They became the world where I was free. I was punished if I was caught talking to myself, but I could write to myself, and so I wrote.
My life was a prison in many ways, but my pen tore down its cold iron bars and its grey concrete walls and led me into a world where I had games to play and friends to play them with. I drew pictures of the dolls I could never have. I gave myself pets. I rescued princes from dragons, and I colonized distant planets. I wasn’t allowed to wear whore paint, but I could sketch my face with makeup and earrings and make myself pretty.
Dating was mostly an adventure in futility for as long as I lived under Daddy’s roof, and I was never allowed to play with boys when I was little, but I could write about boys in my diaries, so their pages were often full of imagined love affairs. Everything I couldn’t do, I could write about doing, and I found myself truly feeling like I had a life of my own penned in Sarah’s pages.
Writing stories doesn’t make you an author, any more than shooting your mouth off makes you an orator, or telling lies makes you a politician. You have to write about things people are interested in reading, and write about them in such a way that makes their attention your prisoner. I discovered both of those facts on the same horrible day in Middle School.
English classes had always provided a way for me to write, but of course every paper I was ever assigned had to be non-fiction. When my eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Larson, assigned a project to write an essay about a fictitious event in my life, Daddy had a fit. He went to the school and he and Mr. Larson had words. But Mr. Larson wasn’t about to change his agenda for one hothead, and I was granted the immeasurably joyous latitude, to write for the first time prose fiction on a piece of paper that would not end up hidden under lock and key.
It was actually my second story that I turned in for the assignment. The first one was a story borrowed from Sarah’s pages, in which I learned that I was a princess kidnapped from her royal family. Daddy crumpled that one up and threw it away. I hated him when he did it.
Daddy had started me on piano lessons when I was six years old. He said if I wanted a decent husband I needed to be cultured, but I think it was really more because it kept me out of his hair. I wonder now if he would have still considered it cultured if I’d told him I wanted to become a musician. I didn’t care for playing, though. I always felt like it was forced upon me. So it was about the piano that I chose to write, certain it was something Daddy wouldn’t object to.
My second attempt at a work of fiction, told of how I was accidentally discovered by a talent scout, and invited to the White House to play for the President when I was just nine years old. I put my heart into those three pages. I told of what it was like to meet the President and the First Lady, about the piece I had chosen to play for them and how hard I had to practice it. I even found pictures in the library of a room in the White House where a grand piano sits and used it to write my descriptions.
Mr. Larson gave me an A- on my paper, and I was so thrilled. But then came that slap in the face called reality. Suddenly grateful that Daddy had thrown my princess story in the trash, I was called upon to read my essay in front of the class.
People often teased me about looking like a boy and I guess I can’t really blame them. I was the only girl in our whole school who wasn’t allowed to pierce her ears. I dressed in pants and shirts because Daddy said dresses were too revealing for a girl of my age. I had started playing tennis during summers and practicing twice a week after school and on Saturdays. My legs were more muscular than most of the boys’.
Puberty had not been generous to my chest. The only reason I wore a bra was because what did develop was ridiculously protrusive and Daddy found me an embarrassment. Two meaner boys I won’t dignify by naming, even purposefully bumped me in the halls with an, “Excuse me, Sir.” It didn’t help matters any that I never showed any interest in boys, no matter how hard my crushes were.
I really only had one friend. We weren’t particularly close at that time and she wasn’t in my English class anyway, so it was no great surprise, as I walked to the front of the classroom to read, that I overheard a whispered comment.
“It’s going to be about the day she became a real girl.”
I couldn’t tell who said it, but everyone heard it and the classroom was full of giggles and snickers. I had never been any more embarrassed, but I read anyway, ashamed every second of my body, my face, my clothes, and more with each word, my piano story.
When you’re nervous, you aren’t supposed to look at the faces of your audience, but I didn’t know that then. I watched my classmates as I read to them. They whispered things to each other, doodled on papers, read books, and did generally everything you could imagine except actually listen to what I had written. A couple of kids who had paid attention, rolled their eyes at the part where the President and First Lady applauded for my performance. Several of them laughed out loud when I read the part where the President shook Daddy’s hand and told him he had a fine young pianist. I about died. I hadn’t thought about how that was going to sound when I wrote it.
Mr. Larson watched all this too from his perch on the corner of his desk. When I was done, he thanked me and asked that I return to my seat. He stood in front of the class and demanded everyone’s attention. He explained that he had had me read my essay for two reasons. The first reason he said, was that my paper had received the only A, and he wanted the other students to get an idea of what kind of work he expected from them if they wanted an A in his class. The second reason, he continued, was the reason my paper was only an A-. He wanted to illustrate how important it is when writing fiction, to write about something that isn’t boring. The class erupted with laughter.
I thought my body might have actually caught fire inside. The laughter drowned away beneath a hollow rushing sound and I felt as if I were moving, almost falling through a corridor. The burning sensation grew hotter and hotter and then there were flames around me everywhere. A mask with a respirator covered my face and my clothes were heavy and cumbersome.
The thoughts in my head weren’t my own anymore. The fire was starving and we had to create a breather to prevent a backdraft. A big explosion could close off the exit before the team completed the evacuation with hundreds of people still trapped upstairs. I signaled to my partner to where I saw the best potential for an oxygen source in a non-supporting wall. He was closer to the spot than I was. He nodded and knocked some burning embers out of his way, stepped over toward the wall I had pointed out and struck it with his axe.
On his second swing, there was a small explosion but we had expected that. I checked to make sure he was okay and he held his thumb up, job done. He started back and there was an unholy sound like we were surrounded by the fires of Hell and all the tortured souls had just moaned at once. I looked up and a huge beam came crashing down from the ceiling between us. It was raging in flames and my partner was completely cut off. I panicked, but somehow as if by magic, I felt a strange cool breeze and I could see my partner was standing in front of me again, only he looked a lot like Mr. Larson.
Episodes like that one were becoming more and more a part of my life. It’s hard to tell how long they had already been happening, a year maybe longer. They’re so much like dreams. The firefighter was just the first one that clearly stands out in my memory. In a way, they were to become my whole life, but for this moment, the man risking his life to save others offered me only a short escape from the moment. He saved me from embarrassment that I’m sure would otherwise have had me crying in front of Mr. Larson’s class. I don’t like crying where people can see. I don’t like people feeling sorry for me.
I’ve since gone back and read my piano story. I don’t think it was really as boring as all that. It was more a problem of my audience being a bunch of mindless twelve and thirteen year old kids, the majority of whom didn’t want to be there in the first place. Ultimately, they were exactly the people I didn’t want to write for anyway. If my paper was the best in the class, I imagine their contributions would have been abominable to suffer through if any of them had been asked to read aloud.
Mr. Larson wasn’t trying to be mean to me. At least I don’t think he was. I never asked him why he made me read my paper instead of reading it himself. Maybe it was because he thought if he was the one reading it, the kids would pay attention no matter how boring it was and it wouldn’t have served to illustrate his point. Or maybe he just wanted to study the reactions of the other students. Whatever his reason, the pain of that moment left me wounded, confused, and convinced that I would never fulfill my dream of being a writer.
© 2012 Anne Schilde