On the Periphery

Things change. Life throws us curves and changeups. It's good to have a place to vent.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Once there was a constancy to the world. As children, we knew, among other truths, that the sky was blue, milk was good for you, that rain was pure, and that there were nine planets in our solar system.

But as we grew, we learned that the sky really wasn’t blue, that it was just the filter of our atmosphere that bent the sun’s light to make it look so. We learned that milk could contain Strontium-90 or BGH, and that rain was actually water vapor formed around dirt, and it could be acidic. That left the planets. There was some comfort in knowing that at last there was an indisputable constant. Shakespeare wrote of our unalterable fates that lie in the stars. The Greeks and Romans placed their gods in the skies as a reminder of constancy.

No more. Pluto has been demoted, and our personal universes reel. If there is no constancy in our stars, even, then what hope is there for the rest of our world?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice: Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.
–Catherine Drinker Bowen

What makes a writer? Until my 9th grade English teacher said to me, “You are a writer,” I had never put a label on my love of language. Now, as I can look back, I can see the early signs that indicated my bent.

First, there was my love of story and my desire to know “what if?” In first grade, we were required to read out loud, one at a time. I would finish reading the entire book while a classmate struggled with “See Spot run.” Bored, I would daydream: What if Dick ran away and Jane had to find him? What if Spot got his head stuck in the rain spout? What if . . .

Then, there was my love of looking at maps, spending hours poring over them, imagining what it would be like to live in Philadelphia, in Biloxi, or in Salem, both Massachusetts and Oregon. I needed to explore the streets, familiarize myself with each area. I wanted details, the minutiae, to feel as though I were a part of the place. Now I realize it is part of my need to live more than my own life, to explore the similarities of human experience from different locations, to wonder how my own life would have been different had I lived in a major city rather than a small town.

I started my first novel when I was about nine. My protagonists were twin girls who lived on a farm in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, a name I thought thoroughly romantic and obviously in some remote locale. (It’s actually a suburb of Milwaukee. I got it mixed up with the town of Menomonie, which is in the far northwest portion of the state.) But the writing was fun, and I moved to poetry, song parodies, and short stories, winning awards and accolades along the way. I read everything I could get my hands on, spent hours considering the impact of a book and how it was achieved. I learned to shape ideas, and, more important, to revise.

I had to write. Everything I heard on the news, every bit of gossip at school, every conversation caught in passing, started my mind whirring with possibilities. That old “what if?” continues to dominate my mind, causing me to twist words and situations that happen to me, shaping them into a new angle, a new viewpoint, a new ending. And that sometimes worries me.

I am afraid that I am submerging my own life into that of fantasy, that someday when I am very old, I will remember not the realities of my life, but the mutations I developed from them. This is not an unfounded fear. Year ago, my grandmother, senile in her 90’s, would talk about a second son, telling us detailed stories about him, even though we knew he had never existed. (Our family is very close, and very well documented. There are no secrets.)Yet he was obviously real to her in her dementia. Where in the recesses of her mind did he come from?

I wonder if she was a writer at heart, inventing stories, changing facts, exploring wisps of dreams. I wonder if the need, the propensity to write, is an inherited, genetic talent. Did I get it from my grandmother? If so, the beat goes on.

My son loves looking at maps.