Why I Pretend to be a Writer

I believe I have always been a writer but it took me years to discover it. I think I knew for sure when my brother wrote home from wherever he was stationed in the Air Force at the time that, of all the letters he received (and was grateful for all), the ones he most looked forward to were mine. This coincided with the funeral of Uncle Jarvis that I’d written to report on, how I’d gotten a headache because I had to sit near Aunt Willie who was either too fat or too lazy to bathe properly and the stink was unbearable. He had liked it so much that he shared it with his buddies and they all laughed. I knew then and there, although I never told anybody else as I kept most things of any importance to myself, that I wanted to be a writer. I think I never told anyone because I didn’t want anyone to ever say “no, you can’t!”

A few years ago, however, one of my writing professors at Ohio State U asked our class during a discussion of various authors first awareness of themselves as writers, When did you first know you were a writer? Forced to think about it at the time I realized that while I had only recently, around 1987, begun to write in earnest, I had in fact been writing in my head all my life.

When I was very young my family was very poor. When I accomplished my assigned chores and could get away to play, one of my favorite pasttimes was to slip away to my “imaginary village.” It was located on a sandy plot of earth on the side of the house underneath which would eventually house the septic tank for our first indoor toilet* after Mr. Willy approved the expense of adding plumbing to the big farmhouse he owned and we lived in as “share croppers.” It had once been the Farnell family home where several generations had grown up sans indoor plumbing, so for the first year or two we lived there we had to avail ourselves of the outdoor privy otherwise known as an outhouse.*

The beauty of this plot of dirt was the Chinaberry tree growing nearby that provided a dramatic backdrop for the goings on there as well as shade in the humid heat of the sun. One nice thing about farm living is that you can always just about anything in the way of scrap material to whet your imagination, and I was after all the daughter of the man locally known as one who could “repair anything with a length of scrap chicken wire. To build this playtime village I filched wooden board scraps and cinder blocks. These would serve as houses, single story wooden structures (the wood pieces) and two-story concretes (cinder blocks) for the richer people, just as it was in my real life.

The population of my village was made up of stick dolls that had cotton hair made from the cotton filler that I got from the insides of aspirin and medicine containers, held in place with crowns made from scraps of tinfoil. The girls wore mostly tinfoil dresses while the boys were more or less plain and naked sticks unless, like me, you could “see” the clothes in your head.

In the barn I found small pieces of wire to fashion into little horses. It might take anywhere from 20 to 30 small strips of used tobacco twine tied meticulously along the length of the head to make frilly little manes, and I remember my little fingers aching from the effort, but I always had at least one little horse worthy of being called “Trigger,” who of course was Roy Roger’s famous horse in his Western movies.

I carried on pretend lives in these villages for weeks at a time, until finally one day Mama would get around to cleaning up that part of the yard and make me dismantle “the mess” that I called my city.

Other times I used a wildflower that grew close to the ground in little curlicues (that I wish I knew the name of) for girls. If broken at the proper stem-length and turned upside down the little curlicues made two “legs” I imagined as dressed in fancy purple jodphurs (these jodphurs, or fancy riding britches, were the tiny flowers than ran along the stems that curled up). It was a fashion to envy. These little fancy-pant girls would easity sit astride a wire horse back and the wire feet of the horses made wonderful “hoof” marks in the dirt.

It was a mini-microcosm-world and I loved it. As its creator, I was God, the boss. My people were often injured from accidents (sometimes when I pressed to hard on he sticks to make them walk, they’d break). Out would come the tinfoil scraps and I would try to patch the broken people together, but they were never the same, and eventually they all died. Which was okay (!) because death led to grief and heartbreak and funerals and survivors, and the story could go on and on and on. I believe that is when I became a writer, or at least a teller of stories.

*Our outhouse was a spiffy model as these things go, a fairly wide two-seater, with space enough between the holes to hold a couple of Sears Roebuck catalogs that were very useful. At first I remember being very much afraid that my tiny little behind would slide right down into the hole to be met by the fangs of rattle snakes or mocassins that I was pretty sure were hiding there just waiting to bite me. In time I grew big enough (or brave enough) to get up there all by myself and sit with my britches (that’s what we called them then, most people now would call them panties) hanging down around my ankles. If the offering to the snakepit currently being considered was #2 as opposed to #1 it sometimes took awhile, and so I’d pick up a catalog to look at the pictures. When the mission was accomplished I’d turn the pages to select one of the less slick pages, usually the pages that had no color prints, to use as what we now refer to as “toilet paper.” While this was all well and good during the daylight hours, imagine how difficult if not downright impossible it was to answer any urgent calls of nature during the middle of a dark and rainy night. Come to think of it, this subject definitely calls for more than a footnote and may claim a posting of its own sometime in the future. Here and now, in 2007, it’s almost incomprehensible to me that I actually experienced this kind of life, measured as it is by all the changes in my world over the past 50 years.

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