I have been a writer all my life, but I never thought of myself as one, not in the way I grew up thinking about them. Charlotte Bronte. George Eliot. Edith Wharton. Henry James. Virginia Woolf. To me, they were writers! As a freshman at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, when my preceptorial professor and default academic advisor Robert O’Clair (then editor of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry) told me that I “should be a writer,” I imagined myself penniless, homeless, lifeless in a gutter before I had gray hair. I fled–the school, the image, the aspiration–by the end of my first semester.
Three and a half years later, I graduated from a small women’s college close to home (where I had never wanted to go) with a BS degree in English (along with business and economics), and after several years in advertising and public relations, in Manhattan and Albany, writing about things I didn’t care about and answering grammar questions from people in corner offices, I fled again, this time to grad school, first to American literature, then to rhetoric and composition studies. Literary and rhetorical analysis was routine, and that was where I spent my writing life.
It wasn’t until I opened a spiral stenographer’s notebook my mother had used for grocery lists and phone messages that I began to write nonacademic prose again, in order to cope with and somehow to preserve what turned out to be the last three weeks of her life. I could not bring myself to open the notebook for more than ten years, but when I did, I heard my mother’s voice again.
It’s a lot to ask of black marks on a white page or screen, making time and distance and experiences disappear into memory–an eternal present, like painted scenes on a Grecian urn. And yet, it’s all we have.