Why I Write

iStock_000016885438XSmallWhy I Write

Mother taught me to read when I was five. I sat next to her on the couch, my brown leather shoes dangling over the edge of the cushion as I sounded out words. Run, laugh, blow, wind. Periodically I looked up for her approval, for the nod of her black hair telling me to keep going. When I read the words correctly she would smile at me and give me a warm squeeze. And so I learned the power of words. Once I no longer relied on her, I struck out on my own, reading everything and anything available. I memorized every Sally, Dick and Jane book in the house and soon I was reading Henry Huggins, Runaway Ralph, and Charlotte’s Web. These books paved the way for Little House on the Prairie, Caddie Woodlawn, Strawberry Girl and Old Yeller and eventually Black Beauty, Sara Crewe and Call of the Wild. I read all of the approved books in our homeschool library—twice. As a teenager though, I was steered away from fiction and stories and was encouraged to read only the religious books and to begin to study the tenets of polygamy. So I read the Book of Mormon and the Bible, the history of the Mormon Church, the diaries of the early pioneers and the handmade tracts published by the leaders of the polygamous group to which my family belonged. While I read all the books I was supposed to read what I really wanted was to go to the library and bring home thick fantasy novels, biographies of interesting people and all the history books I could absorb. But I didn’t go to the library though one existed a few blocks from our house. I read the daily newspaper from front to back, the outdated stack of National Geographic magazines, even an old, faded green, Fannie Farmer Cookbook.

Technically, I was allowed to read. But only in my free time, which was precious little. So, when I found a worn out copy of a novel called The Frogmen in a bin of items to be discarded, I stole it. I hid it under my dress, securely pressed against my stomach and held firm by the waistband of my hosiery. I loved the feel of the forbidden book against my bare skin, the bent corners poking me, prodding me. I read it in the basement while folding laundry for over thirty people, ready to stuff it under a mountain of socks if anyone caught me. I read it while cleaning the house, prepared to thrust it under the bed or behind a dresser. I hid out in the bathroom, reading until I lost track of the time and Mother came banging on the door. When the book was finished I put it back in the bin of items to be thrown out. And I learned to notice what others discarded.

One day while emptying the trash into the metal cans outside, I spotted, what at first, looked like a thin book, (I now know it was a literary magazine) stuffed into the garbage with the junk mail, still in its plastic sleeve. It had obviously arrived at the wrong address. I don’t remember the name of it, but I knew just by looking at the formatting and the abstract black and white image on the cover that it was something entirely different from anything I had ever read before. I tore the plastic and drew it out of its casing, thumbing through its pages. It was printed on heavy paper with a matte finish, the words were dark and clean. There wasn’t a single advertisement or distracting image. I closed it and I ran my finger along its crisp edge and smoothed my palm over the back cover. I felt rich just holding it. I glanced quickly at the windows above me to make sure I was alone. I lifted my dress and slid the magazine down my underwear. I smoothed my waistband and walked casually back into the house.

I went upstairs and pulled back the curtain of Mother’s closet. It was elevated and a small bench sat at the base and acted as a step. It made the perfect seat and I often took a notebook and pen and sat there staring out her bedroom window, imagining I was a poet, waiting for the tops of a few trees, the dark strands of telephone wires and the peeling shingles of the house next door, to offer up some inspiration. I longed to write something profound and elegant. But I usually ended up with a few silly words about an azure blue sky or the sweet song of a bird before I tore the paper from my notebook and wadded it up. That morning, I came to the closet, not to write, but to read. If I heard anyone coming up the stairs, the closet was deep enough for me to slide to the back and pull my whole body into the folds of Mother’s pleated skirts and high collared dresses. And if I didn’t breathe, no one would know I was there. I pulled out the magazine from my underwear. It was warm and slightly curved. I opened it up and read the first story.

A young girl, sixteen, about my own age, spoke to me in the first person. She told me how she forced herself to throw up after she ate, only pretending to eat so her parents wouldn’t become worried. How she sneaked back to the kitchen late at night and gorged on chocolate cake and orange juice only to spend the next hour over a toilet sobbing and silently purging. A dark hatred filled her up, but she could blow it out like an exhale of breath, a puff of smoke. But she needed it too like taking a drag on a cigarette behind the stadium at school. She told me of all the black thoughts that swamped her mind, the disgust that swirled inside of her stomach, that made her mouth say harsh words and her hands hurt her little brother when he entered her room without knocking, when he saw her bony figure standing in front of the mirror, when he hurried to tell their mother. It was this that led her to the bathroom tub one night where the warm water was the same temperature as the blood that ran down both slashed wrists. She told me of the faint sound of her mother crying, the ambulance sirens, and her own voice calling out in protest, but that she later discovered, was too distant for anyone else to hear. She showed me the scars on her wrists as she said these words to me: You are not alone. Those words never appeared on the page but I heard them as clearly as a door slamming, or the jarring clang of the phone ringing. She had revealed to me my own dark thoughts, had shown me my terrible interior, and when she took me to the bathroom on that fateful day, I was there with her, letting my own blood run free. I had never read anything like that before. It changed me instantly, permanently, a small, hairline crack in my sealed world.

You are not alone.

Those are the words that I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Words that she gave me because she was brave enough to tell the truth. I held the magazine to my heart, tears streaming down my face that I refused to wipe away. They were holy tears, like Jesus weeping. I hid the magazine in a small nook under the floorboard of Mother’s closet. I had other things hidden there too: a few newspaper articles that I had saved, some images of movie stars I had cut out from a teen magazine I had found in the gutter, and a small calendar diary. I covered them up with a few old blankets that were stored there.

When Mother found my stash she took the whole pile, except my diary, and burned it in the fireplace. The pictures of the movie stars quickly curled under the orange flame. The newspaper was ash in minutes but the literary magazine refused to burn. She nudged it with the poker, pushing it deeper into the red coals at the back of the fire. Then I saw its edge catch, a jagged red flame chased by the black charring of the heavy stock paper. Satisfied, Mother placed the screen back in front of the fire and left me staring into the blaze with my shoulders slumped, thinking of new and better hiding places. I watched the fire burn the magazine, flaring up when it found fresh words until it too, was ash. But it was too late for book burning.

Today I am writer. I no longer sit at the window longing to pen something profound and elegant. I only strive to be brave enough to tell the truth. To all of you who wonder if your small and unknown life really matters, who learn to hide books under your clothes, who feel invisible and who ache to find yourself in the heart of another, I write for you. For those of you who believe that no one can ever really know your pain, that your past is too complicated, too dark or scary or weird, for any normal person to understand, I write for you. I write for those of you, who feel too ugly to be seen, too broken to be healed, too shielded to be deeply known, and who have been exiled for too long to ever come home.

You are not alone.

I write for me. And for you.