I'm in school. The teachers tell us if we want to write we should read the greats, like Hemingway. I read to escape the suburbs and my family. I write letters to pen pals in faraway places I find on my father's globe. Then my mother tells me, "Do not write anything you do not want anyone else to read." I follow her instructions. I don't write at all. In college I write long letters to friends and read literature to avoid my major course of study. My father tells me, "You should write, just write what you know." How can I write what I know when I know nothing, have been nowhere?
Ten years pass. I am newly married, moving to Jamaica. My husband will work at the US Embassy. I'm not sure I want to leave my job to become financially dependent on someone else. Even someone I love who loves me. We both love to read. My mother-in-law says, "You won't have a job? Just write a book."
We are on home leave after our posting to France. My sister-in-law says she wishes she had nothing to do all day but read books, like me. I have two daughters, a Jamaican teenager from West Kingston and a new baby. My younger cousin, who is like my brother, is using chemicals to fight the brain tumor that will eventually kill him. My father, a strong swimmer, drowns on a calm, clear day; the autopsy is botched. A year later my son is born.
We are in Oz. My Aussie friend Frances says, "Don't ask 'Will anyone read what I write?' Ask yourself, 'Do I have something to say?'" No problem, I always have something to say. I continue to say it in long letters and e-mails. My writing is ranting, complaints involving a presidential prick, or PMS. (Later peri-menopause will join in, but not yet.)
We are in Niger. I am side-tracked from writing, there is so much sand, so much heat, so much need. Start a Head Start program in a squatter village, bring the biblio boite (library in a milk crate) to the children, work with nuns at an orphanage, teach sign language to a deaf child, foster sick babies named Abdou-Francois and Chamsia. My husband breaks his arm on a visit to Europe, but in Niger, I am busy. I am happy. I am me. On the day after 9/11, our night guard Mr. Dobi tells me he never knew buildings could be made so high. He says "They fell like sugar falling through water."
We are in Uganda. I am side-tracked from writing, there is so much mud, so much humidity, so much need. Start libraries in schools, teach teachers how to use books. Work with artists, work with women, work with children. I am busy. I am happy. I am me. I write an article for an Australian magazine about Ugandan artists. I contribute a chapter to a book The Realities of Foreign Service Life. Our next assignment will be Morocco. People we know at home are excited, they think we are going to live in Monaco.
We are in Morocco. Princess Grace never lived here. Casablanca is white hot blinding sun, brilliant and diffuse. I am depressed. I read, and sleep. I set the alarm clock for 7 am, 12 noon, 2 pm, 4 pm; my daily rhythms set not by the call to prayers, but by the elementary school I must walk to with my son. Slowly I crawl out of my darkness to set up a library at an orphanage in the Atlas Mountains. My husband is medevaced suddenly to London. He got sick during a short vacation in Spain. I teach a workshop on street sexual harassment. Walking is the most dangerous action a woman can do in this city. Two brothers blow themselves up in front of the American Consulate where my husband and I work.
We are in DC, learning Greek. Next post: Athens. At Nostimo Cafe waiting for the ferry to Andros, a Greek Cycladic island, I am nervous. I am here to go to my first writing workshop. The organizer is wearing colorful scarves and funky jewelry. I'm not sure if I like her. I have a drawer-full of scarves I feel too silly to wear. My insecurities are not the only things I am packing. Swimsuit, sun lotion, sandals, sunglasses. New Yorker magazines and 5 books for five days. The organizer talks, referring to "the writers." Who is she talking about? Where are the writers? Maybe that slip of a young woman, brown wavy hair curling around her sweet face and bright smile. Is she one of the writers? I stop listening. A little later, we board the ferry, shuffling with laptops, dragging suitcases, holding on to plastic freddoccino cups.
That night I am scared. What if I can't write a word? What if no phrase comes into my head worth dragging out and writing down? I sleep poorly.
The next morning. The young woman is sitting in the teacher's seat. That's the teacher? She sent us the scary e-mail about writing! Intimidated by her e-mail I had almost cancelled.
Writing prompt morning number one: Write about a person who raised you. A fit seventy-year-old botanist writes about the nun who held a small child in a Japanese concentration camp in Java, Indonesia. Think strong, be strong. The Indian woman with warm brown skin and long eyelashes reads a lovely short story of longing and loss, sorrow and sadness. Now I must read something I have written. Out loud. To other people. To the writers. I feel sick, I should have cancelled. My family is dysfunctional, annoying, but not enough for interesting fiction. I read an essay about my father. I am in hell. Hell is story friendly. The writers encourage me to continue trying to be a writer. A writer is someone for whom writing is difficult, the teacher tells us. The organizer tells me I have a novel to write. She is very weird.
Six months later we meet again in Andros. It is off-season. We encourage each other to keep writing. A writer is someone who writes. I write an article that is published in the Foreign Service Journal. I am paid $100. I print up business cards that identify me as a writer. I rarely give them to anyone.
The second summer workshop on Andros. The organizer talks to me about "your novel." What? The Indian woman is back again, too. She reads her stories out loud. A refugee in America is haunted by his Congolese childhood. Forced to be a child soldier, he rapes a young girl, his best friend, so he won't be killed by his comrades. A taxi cab driver in Boston recognizes his wealthy fare, the rebel commander who tortured him, raped and killed his wife in their native Rwanda. I write about Ellen, a middle-aged woman who goes to a writing workshop on a Greek island. My thirteen-year-old son calls me from Athens in the evening. He asks me what I am writing about this time. I tell him.
A pause, writers would call this "white space." "Run out of things to write about already, huh Mom?"
The third summer workshop. I am writing a novel. The guest writer tells us to cut out most dialogue. If we know information we should not be afraid to use it. I spend hours cutting out dialogue in one scene. The next morning I write for hours before class, adding more information. Then it is my turn to read. Later, in my room, I spend more hours editing out the information I had just written in. I sit alone, at my desk for hours, alone, for hours. I tell myself, "It will be over soon, it will be better tomorrow."
The next day the guest poet asks us to write to our Greek muse. My muse is on strike.
Now we must write a poem. I do not like poetry. I hate that poem about the tree we read in school. "I think that I shall never see, a poem so lovely as a tree
" The teacher asked us, "What is the poem about?" It's about a tree. She said we were wrong. It's forty-three years later, I still remember. I don't think this will be over soon. I am right.
I write a poem. An epic alphabet poem. It's not Hemingway but it's about moving, something I know about, the many places I have lived. The next morning I read it out loud, in class. The instructors like it. The other students like it. It's not a novel but the organizer likes it, too.