I’ve wanted to write since first grade. In my mind’s eye, I see my thick pencil furiously printing words on the pages of a yellow-ruled Big Chief tablet. When Mrs. Johnson said “pencils down,” I slid the tablet off the desk top and onto my lap so I could continue writing what I believed was a great story. The greatness was all in my head.
Like many other second graders in 1962, I came down with chicken pox. To help me pass the time, my mother went to our local Carnegie Public Library and brought home some children’s books. When she began to read them aloud to me, I was hooked! By third grade, the year I got my first pair of glasses, I knew that I wanted to write books like the ones my mother got for me at the library. Stealing away to a quiet place in the corner of my parents’ bedroom, I diligently copied a favorite library book into one of my tablets. Unaware that the story had to be my own, I thought I had become an author.
Soon after that I discovered the card game “Authors.” My maternal grandmother, who had taught in a one-room school, was always giving me educational items. In those days, my family seldom made time for games, but someone must have played this game with me because I soon knew all the authors and their books. The game led me to seek out the shelf of classic novels at our public library, which were shelved alphabetically by author. I forget if any other author preceded Alcott, but her novel, Little Women, became a favorite and reinforced my desire to be a writer just like Jo, my favorite character in the book.
In junior high I developed a love of research and writing, and this helped me through a socially awkward time. I could have focused on my lack of friends or stylish clothing, but Mrs. Lazza recognized my desire to be a writer and asked me to edit the junior high newspaper. When I look at ditto-mastered pages of the Dragonette, I’m stunned to see my byline on a number of the stories. I doubt that many of my seventh and eighth grade classmates found my earnest efforts to write local history of much interest.
For Christmas 1968 my paternal grandfather, also a former one-room school teacher, gave me the best present ever, a brand new Underwood Olivetti manual typewriter. It was an exceptional gift at a time when I typically received a new sweater or pajamas. I was thrilled! Now I could really be a writer. But there was just one small problem. I did not know how to type. Recognizing my dilemma, Mrs. Bushong, my freshman English teacher, volunteered to stay after school one day a week to give me typing lessons. Looking back, I’m certain that I did not thank her enough for teaching me such a useful skill.
High school was a painful time for me. because I felt like an outsider. My mother assured me that once I reached college I would find friends more like myself. I don’t know how she knew this since as a Depression-era teenager, she didn’t get to attend college. Years later I realized the wisdom of her words, but at the time they offered little comfort to a girl who didn’t fit into “The Group.” But once again, words saved my life. Instead of spending many “woe is me” hours in the guidance counselor’s office, I began writing for the high school newspaper and co-editing the school yearbook. I discovered poetry in one of my English classes, and filled pages and pages of a spiral notebook with lines of anxiety-ridden iambic pentameter. About a decade later when I unearthed my notebook and reread the introspective verse, I felt so embarrassed by my honesty that I shredded it. After all, it had served its purpose.
Over time, my love of writing stories and poems yielded to the production of academic prose, and in time I came to take my academic writing for granted. It was hard work, but the act of research and writing fueled me. After it appeared, though, I disconnected from it, ready to move on to the next project. I never learned to savor the accomplishment. When critics noted how readable my articles and books were, I did not take such “praise” as a compliment because it seemed to imply that my scholarship was simple. In retrospect, I feel good about it. After all, I was writing for readers like myself, people who loved a good story and enjoyed history.
Since I first learned to form letters, I have wanted to create stories and record impressions of my world. Somewhere along the way I got sidetracked. Now that I am retired, I would like to rediscover the joy of writing that I knew as a first grader. Is that possible? My years of academic writing have left my writing a bit stilted and emotionless, and I need to more fully develop my powers of observation. But above all, I need to give myself permission to write. As someone used to measuring results, I have to get used to the idea that the act of writing is as enjoyable and meaningful to me as a long bicycle ride is to a cyclist. It’s all about the journey, not the destination!