I was five, and my brother was six. He went off to school, and I stayed home to throw tantrums, rolling on the floor, because I could not go with him. My mother ignored my tantrums. I begged for someone to read aloud to me. I was fascinated by books, but my working-class parents were too busy trying to make a living and worrying about how they were going to pay bills to spend time reading fairy tales to me. My mother told me to ask my older sister and brother to read to me, which they did not do. Consequently, I was primed to go to school and learn to read for myself.
Before my first day of school, no one had sat down to teach me the alphabet or how to write my name. I had not attended kindergarten, so everything I learned was intensely exciting, especially the reading groups. Despite my non-exposure to reading, I was quickly assigned to the first reading group, ostensibly the most proficient readers. But even that group was too slow for me as I quickly read stories far ahead in my grade-school reading books, leaving everyone in the group far behind.
All through school, whenever a teacher assigned a composition to write, I leaped to the task with enthusiasm, finishing the writing assignment long before the due date. I displayed the same eagerness in high school and college when presented with a long term paper to complete. I dived immediately into researching the topic – delving into the library stacks, savoring the smell of the printed pages in the row upon row of books, accumulating notes – and then sitting down with a pile of note cards to write my paper. I entered the library, my temple of learning, with reverence and devotion.
A confirmed bookworm, I aspired to write novels and poetry like the authors I so admired. Naturally, I gravitated toward literature and a college major in English. I took a creative-writing class, wrote a few tentative short stories, and contributed a poem to the college literary magazine. About age eighteen, I began a lifetime habit of journal-writing, but I did not seriously pursue publication of my work until my thirties, when I attended a workshop on death and dying. One of the assignments was to list what you would do if you knew you had only a year to live. On the list was my desire to write a novel before I died. That first novel became The Bottle Collector. Fortunately, I lived to write eleven more.
Since then, I have also explored short-story writing and have published one collection. I agree with those who say that writing a good short story is much more difficult that writing a good novel. The work of a miniaturist requires a higher degree of delicacy and precision, of carefully chosen details, and highly suggestive and nuanced language than is required on the larger, sprawling canvas of the novel. I would add that writing a good poem is even more difficult than writing a good short story. A poem must pack a wallop in even fewer words, imbuing the lines with cadence, and rhythm – all the musical effects – connotation and denotation, simile, and metaphor that make it sing with a zing the reader will remember long after the reading.
My romance with poetry began in childhood with a nun who had the class memorize poetry, and my love affair continued in high school through the required memorization of Shakespearean soliloquies. Poetry is a good place to begin to develop a zest for language, its mesmerizing effects, and all of its incantatory powers. The artful prose writer typically is a poetry reader. There is no better laboratory in which to learn concise use of language and to nourish the love of playfulness with words than poetry.
My odyssey with writing continues. It will end with this epitaph inscribed on my tombstone: She read and wrote herself to death.