unless i free them, their lives are on hold. their relationships stilted. their histories are hidden in the silence of my keyboard. their secrets are safely tucked away; untold, untouched.
they follow me around, looking out at me from that mysterious land within me where imaginary people are born. periodically, i’ll go back and read what’s been written. i watch them come alive before me. they stir into action, reviewing what i’ve created of them over and over again like Ground Hog day. they talk to one another. they build lives. they hope. they share. they tuck themselves away, not ready to be seen.
and then, they freeze up again as i shut the document, folding up their lives. they wait.
i carry them with me daily. and far away, far from the reality of my keyboard, untouched by the interpretation of others. they are waiting.
i am almost ready.
i’m not sure what makes me hesitant to bring them into the open. it’s not like the story isn’t complete, inside where i keep stories-in-waiting.
it’s not like i have confusion about their identities or their state of being. i know where they are going. i know what comes next. i know where they’ll be in book four, five, six. i know where they’ve come from.
i just … don’t want anyone else to touch them yet.
but they’re dying in there. dying to get out.
meanwhile, like an overprotective mother, i want to keep them safe just a while longer.
they are young still. they don’t know what’s out there. they aren’t ready.
Before I write down one word, I have to have the character in my mind through and through. I must penetrate into the last wrinkle of his soul. • HENRIK IBSEN
i wrote my first novel when i was barely old enough to know what to do with language. a secret project, it was written on pieces of birch bark i had managed to rip from trees on our property. i kept them hidden in my brothers’ underground fort (in part ashamed of my writing, in part in fear of having defaced a tree). it was a complicated mystery and included big words that, though i didn’t quite understand their meanings, impressed my only audience (my little sister).
as the years progressed, i wrote furiously. words fascinated me. the ways in which they streamed together, how meanings changed, depending on what followed them, the way they came apart…. accents and punctuation excited my sense of order. i loved exclamation marks. i longed to understand the complexities of the semicolon. conjunction junction, what’s your function and the noun song were among my favourite songs.
then came books. books and books and more books. they were all that i wanted. i loved the smell of them. the covers. the spines. the fonts. the older the better. i wanted to know everything hidden inside. i wanted to be inside those pages, hidden from everything but the adventures and worlds of the characters i found within. i read spy novels, filled with things i didn’t understand… i stealthily paged through the works of v.c. andrews and was deliciously shocked by harlequin romances. i read my brother’s louis l’amour cowboy books, read stories about the native american people that moved me to tears… i read farley mowatt and gordon korman. I read sweet valley high and judy blume. i read and read and read.
the world opened for me with every spine cracked.
i wanted it.
i wrote. feverishly. every day, somewhere, on something. when there wasn’t paper nearby or time to write, i kept story after story stored up in my mind. characters like stowaways crept into my mind and waited for us to reach their destination. they waited for names. they waited for lives and friends and settings. they waited for me to learn of sentence structure and grammatical order. (i may still not be there!)
they waited for me to grow strong enough to defend them against analysts and editors and the cruelest of all critics—myself. they waited for me to free myself enough to let the words out.
then, one day, i got my hands on a typewriter. to this day, i remember my mother telling me that i could take the old typewriter into my room. it was an act of wonderful kindness and one of the happiest memories of my life. i was overwhelmed with joy and happiness and freedom. i wrote as if my life depended on it, and maybe, it did. words flowed from me as some sort of bloodletting of the soul. it was as if, for the first time, i could breathe fully. i could get it all out at a speed that was faster than what my handwritten notebooks could handle. it was invigorating.
so, so amazing.
i cut up sheets of paper into 6×9 pages, painstakingly typing chapters of my next book (a tragic tale, true teenaged angst) one sheet at a time, turning the page over, lining up the page exactly, typing again. it fed something deep within me.
we wrote proudly. i played with new, creative, artistic spellings of my name. i was in love with writing. i was a writer. it’s who i am, i tried to explain to anyone who would listen. and if no one understood that, all the better. margaret atwood, i was convinced, would. she would read something i’d written, and she’d find me. “juliet” she’d say “your words moved me” and together, we’d go to her writer’s house (her Word Laboratory, as it were!) and we’d talk about books i had never even read, and i’d be fulfilled.
somewhere during those days of typewriters and ribbons, i got a bookmark. i’m not sure where it came from; school perhaps, or the second hand book store in town where i’d pick up cheap novels on weekends and devour them by Monday.
Poems Please was printed at the top of the bookmark. a picture of some sort and and a poem were on the back, but all i saw was my opportunity, no invitation, to be published. i mean, hey, they were begging me, right? Poems please! PLEASE!
i took down the addresses on the bottom of the bookmark, and then, inspired, i went up to my bedroom, got out my faithful writing companion and poured out my soul. if poems were what they wanted, poems they would get.
who writes better (or more copious) poetry than lonely writers who, hello, no one understands? poems flowed out of me. tragic poems about suicide. deep poems about the mysteries of life. kaleidoscoped messages of beauty and light (yes, that was the line of one of them). poems about haunting love and broken hearts. ghost poems. hopeful poems about sunrise and new life.
excitedly, i packaged my poems in a big envelope, together with a typed letter explaining that they needn’t worry— i was an author and a poet and could provide them with as many poems as they could ever need. they could stop spending money on bookmarks that begged for poems. i had heard their cries, i had responded and everything, i assured them, would be okay.
i wondered if the postman had any idea of what an important package he carried off in his mailtruck. i watched the mail. one sickening night, i woke up in a cold sweat, wondering if the people behind Poems, Please were perhaps plagiarists who had lured me into sending them my works of genius and would publish them as their own. i wept in my bed, certain that some other person would be meeting margaret atwood. misery inspired more poetry, but i was too depressed to write it.
daily, i waited for the mail to arrive. i’d race out to the mailbox, hopeful, yearning. i’m pretty sure i drove my mother crazy.
and then… there.it.was.
i was too sick with excitement to open the envelope. it carried the weight of my fame, of my future and freedom. my hands shook as i held that envelope.
it was …
… there still is no word to describe the painful hope and dread that single envelope held.
i finally , carefully opened it, afraid that if i waited too long, one of my brothers may come along and snatch it from me. afraid that someone might come along, see me reading it, and witness something so vulnerable, so naked that i’d feel exposed in all the wrong ways.
to this day, i remember every beat of my heart which followed in violent sorrow as i read the words—Poems, please! was not an invitation for pathetic young girls like me to send in their trite writings, but rather, the letter informed me, the name of an actual book (Poems Please! Sharing Poetry with Children. Markham, Ontario: Pembroke Publishers Limited, 1988).
i was humiliated. i was crestfallen. i was ashamed of myself and of my dreams of ever being an author.
i lay in my bed imagining the disdain on the faces of mr. david booth and mr. bill moore, authors of Poems Please, But Not You, Silly Girl and how, even at that very instant, they were probably drinking fancy writer wine with maragret atwood, who, of course i now hoped i’d never meet.
the sting of that disappointment did not easily fade.
i stopped writing for a while after that. i prayed no one would ever hear of my shame.
i gave up.
and though later in high school, i would win writing contests and receive praise for most anything i wrote, periodically, like a bad toothache, i’d think of that rejection letter and wonder what was so wrong with my poems that they wouldn’t even add an extra line—by the way, kid, your poems were great. ps margaret atwood says hello