I must have been about four years old, and I was sitting on the family room floor with my older brother and sister as they read silently to themselves. We were surrounded by colorful storybooks piled into stacks that seemed as tall to me as mountains. I watched closely as my brother’s eyes scanned the pages, wondering at the secret code he had unlocked that allowed him to discover adventures in distant lands; I listened as my sister flipped through the pages, loving the sound of the crisp paper between her fingers; and I even opened some of the books myself, trying to piece together the stories from the pictures, and sometimes lifting the books to my nose to smell the paper and glue, as if some clue to their essence could be found hidden there.
Not long after that I learned how to write the letters of the alphabet, but I had no idea what sounds each letter stood for yet. One afternoon I wrote a series of letters on a piece of scrap paper, and I asked my mother to tell me what they spelled. “Well, Gigi,” she said, “that spells gzbltkysup.”
“But that’s not a word,” I complained. So I tried again. And again. Each attempt worse than the one before it. Finally, I had an idea. “You write a word for me,” I said.
And so she did. D-O-G. Dog. Now that’s a word, I thought. That’s a word I can learn how to spell, and I can remember it, too. And soon I was seeing it everywhere: on the dog biscuit box in the pantry, in dog food ads in my mother’s magazines. Even in storybooks. I could read a word. All I had to do now was add to my list of words, and eventually I would know how to write and read every word in the whole wide world.
And so my first passion was born. Words led me to books, and books led me to writing tales and poems of my own. Soon the room I shared with my sister was overflowing with the books I'd hauled home from the library and from neighborhood yard sales. Many, many years before I ever read Virginia Woolf, I experienced my next real longing, a longing for a room of my own. In second grade I dragged the antique desk--the kind with a little hole in the right corner for an inkwell--into our bedroom closet, and there among the skirts and blouses and macrame belts I penned tomes on the backs of fliers from my father’s grocery store.
Reading and writing were the driving force of my childhood and young adulthood. No matter what else I did, what sports I played, what boy I loved, what classes I took, they were my refuge, my treasure, my challenge, and my joy. When my father died my sophomore year in high school, the poems of Czeslaw Milosz and the novels of Jane Austen were my solace. They didn’t let me escape life, rather they helped me to face it with more strength and understanding than I could have on my own.
Books were the reason I became an English major in college, and why I began publishing my first poetry and fiction in journals when I was in my early twenties. They were the reason I met and fell in love with the cute boy in my literary theory class who could write sentences like nobody’s business, and who would eventually become my husband (and most-trusted editor). They were the reason I went to graduate school for creative writing, and the reason I have continued to publish and teach ever since. I've taught creative writing, children’s literature, and poetry courses to university students for many years. The only thing I can imagine that’s more joyful or satisfying than reading a beautifully written sentence is writing one. The only thing better than that is helping someone else learn how to write one. Words are my lifelong passion, and I love having the opportunity to share this passion.
As for the list of words I began in childhood, I am still adding to it almost daily. Fortunately, there are more words in the whole wide world than I can ever know, so my passion will continue to grow for as long as I have eyes to see and there are books to write and read.
|My poetry chapbook, winner of the Midnight Sun Award, published by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.|
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