29 9 / 2012
(Originally posted in my blog “The Zipper Up the Monster’s Back”)
In the third grade I put together a little book, bound by hand, covered with white and yellow gingham fabric. My stories were far from original, in fact they were reworked versions of bits and pieces of books my sister told me about. My sister read constantly and she loved talking about stories she’d read. I drew little pictures to go with my stories, and while I mimicked those bits and pieces, my imagination would sometimes click on, and other little stories came out of me. Drawing helped the process.
My little book contained an “about the author” section, and in that section I wrote that when I grew up I wanted to live on a farm with lots of animals and be an artist and a writer.
I’ve always been a little embarrassed to call myself a “writer” or an “artist.” I guess I’ve heard it said so many times with a pretentious overtone that I was scared to sound like a big jerk. But really, there’s no difference between saying “I’m a plumber” or “I’m a dog walker” or even, “I’m a doctor”, no difference between that and being something artsy. It’s just what you do and sometimes it feels good to do it, sometimes it’s all you can think about, and other times it tears you down, shakes you to pieces. You think about becoming the opposite of what you are. You convince yourself that you’re talentless and forgettable and you begin to resent anyone and everyone who ever believed in you. You got me into this god damn it, you think
But it comes back again and again. Like that recurring pimple you’ve gotten on your chin since you were a freshman. Or sometimes it’s more like the annuals you planted. But the desire, the fever, the fierceness returns. In your mind someone has dropped you inside a glass cage, with nothing but a brush and paint, or nothing but your journal and a pen. You don’t get to eat, or pee, or have sex again until you do what you are supposed to be doing. It’s like that, in your head, that solid, no, that transparent.
But why? Where does it come from? What shapes us? What shaped me?
Childhood is both the paradise and the hell from which a writer can pluck any theme or character, event or climax to last the rest of his or her lifetime. My mother’s rich Colombian heritage, my father’s quiet love, the twenty-year age difference between my parents, growing up in a bilingual, biracial home, growing up in a strict religious sect that I’d eventually have to spring from, a sister whom I loved and feared, mental illness, and the excruciating, exhilarating sense of being alone inside a paper planet, spinning. These are the things that shaped me as a writer and artist.
My mother gave me love and magic. My father, discipline and integrity, my sister, self-reliance and willfulness. But they are never characters, or worse, caricatures of themselves in my stories. They are muses, they are whispers that tickle my brain and animate the pages.
It’s amazing how you can look back on years and writing and realize that 99 percent of your writing is about the same thing, that the same theme runs through the eye of the needle, and with infrequent velocity stitches its way through every piece. You don’t know it at the time, but once it’s done, and you take some time away, you see you have a quilt. The quilt that is your subconscious.
I finally know mine. It’s loneliness. I write about loneliness. All the time. In almost every single short story I’ve written, loneliness burns and burns. I used to think my writing was, well, about what I was writing about. That is: womanhood, god, religion, sexuality, and home. But those are the chess pieces I guess, because now what I can see is that loneliness is the force moving those pieces. Checkmate.
Years later, at age fourteen I started seeing a therapist. It would be the start of 22 years of on and off counseling and treatment for bipolar disorder. My therapist was a partially deaf, kind old man. The curtains were yellow and white gingham. I thought of my little book. I’d ripped that book to pieces. My first literary attempt. Then, of all things, that same fabric moved by the breeze, spoke louder than my counseling, louder than timid lies to the old man…
…and it continued to pour over me, that urge, that bold need to “make”. Make music, art, and stories. To make the internal and imagined more real than the external life. To get out what I didn’t understand, so I could see it on paper and maybe see it more clearly.
So, where do writers come from? Is there a particular sperm, the writing sperm that pierces our mother’s eggs and makes us who we are? Or makes us crazy? Or makes us afraid to confess that we are writers, confess that we are painters? Is there a gene that coddles us until we can admit we can only be this one particular thing? What do you gain by being this thing? The others might ask. And we answer, what have I got to lose?
30 7 / 2012
I know that I do not need to make the choice between being a mother and being an artist and writer. I know that.
I know that who I am as a writer makes me who I am as a mother, and who I am as a mother has everything to do with how I write. I know that.
But if I could choose to give it all up, never paint, draw, write or muse again, and if that would take away all my son’s pain, I would do it in a second.
I would never write again.
I would never pick up another paintbrush.
I would do it in a heartbeat if it meant taking away his melancholy.
This isn’t the choice life has asked me to make.
This isn’t the sacrifice required of me.
As it is, the writing, the painting, the continuing to seek out and understand and share, is the responsibility, the calling and the cure, for my son and I both.
When I neglect this calling, I am neglecting the answers. I’m hiding from the light.
When I chain myself to safer duties, I am chaining both of us to the same Purgatory.
Instead, I am reminded, Keep the light, keep it bright.
The words, the pages, the ideas, the hope, the pain make up the flame.
We are the light.
06 6 / 2012
"I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library, and it’s better than college. People should educate themselves - you can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories."