Jun 27

Writers' Agonies, Volume I, Chapter I

As a writer, I maintain certain unexamined assumptions I do not wish to examine at all. To wit:

1. Words are the whole world.
2. All words are equal.

These assumptions mean I agonize not only over my own work, but at scarifying length over all words ever spoken or written to me. I can spin up whole rainbows of agony out of a lone "Sorry" scrawled on a rejection slip, and fury, too, because whoever wrote it doesn't seem really sorry! I can't seem to weigh and sort words according to their source or context or tone. Some people say that words are mere hot air, or can be ignored! Not I! To me, all words are serious! You can imagine how I fare in a culture that is jerry-built on kidding and banter. For example:

A--HOLE:
Hi there, Eagle Beak!

ME:
Eagle Beak?

A--HOLE:
It's a joke! Just a joke! (Punches ME on the arm.) Can't you take a joke?

ME:
(Looks daggers.)

A--HOLE:
Ha, ha! I was just kidding. (Pounds ME on the arm repeatedly.) Geez!

ME:
You're a f-----g a--hole.

A--HOLE:
A-ha, ha, ha!
Jun 13

Discovering the Power of the Written Word

I come from a long and possibly unbroken line of non-writers and non-readers, and was about eight when my mom read my description of a family trip to visit her father up north. I must have written it for a teacher because in the piece I used his surname, calling him "Grandpa Pongratz." "'Grandpa Pongratz'!" my mother howled, but not angrily; more as if she'd been startled from behind.

What had I done wrong, I wondered, and slunk away.

Now I'm beginning to see how what I wrote startled her.
  • I had re-named, for an audience, the man she had called Dad and I had called Grandpa. 
  • In doing this I had asserted my difference from her. Mom did not at that time perceive us kids as differing from her in any important way. I was the eldest and my job was to break such news ("Mom, we're different from you") and absorb the response.
  • In writing "Grandpa Pongratz" I had used the power to name. Such power in the hands of an eight-year-old--anybody would freak out.
  • By writing, I had transplanted Grandpa from our entirely private family hothouse and placed him in the light normally reserved for public figures.
  • Words on paper strike much harder than information conveyed verbally.
  • Until that moment her father had not existed on paper, in prose, independently of his own hand.
Writers forget how non-writers perceive us. We forget how amazed and hypnotized we were to see our very first work in print. We might even have succumbed to it ("The first time I saw my name in print, I knew--").

Reminded of this by seeing Indian Paintbrushes growing in the roadside today, and remembering that long-ago car trip, on which Mom told me the name of those orange flowers.

More on this later...