How I learned to write

by Tulasi-Priya on Tuesday 10 July 2012 Shaughnessy.the cat in the hat.image.jpg

I’ve always been in love with books, reading, and writing. I’ve only been blocked for twenty out of my forty-nine years, and they were not my most interesting anyway, so there’s plenty of material to draw on still. Teachers can teach you things, but they can’t get inside your head and make you see, hear, remember, and think. As far as craft goes, I think I learned to write by learning to read. I learned to read in a double-wide mobile home in a California trailer park, sitting on the lap of my mother. She never finished high school, but bought piles of kiddie books, a Little Golden Picture Dictionary, and read to me constantly when I was little.  For some reason I got hooked on The Cat in the Hat, begging her to read it again and again, and she obliged uncomplainingly.

She would point at each word as her halting, New York-rough voice (further coarsened by her two-pack habit and all the screaming she’d done at her three previous husbands, my stepfather, and me and my sister), artlessly enunciated each word. She read it to me so many times I finally memorized it, but I didn’t let on that I had. I told her that I could read it by myself. She told me she’d give me a Kennedy fifty-cent piece if I could get through the whole thing without a mistake. So I recited from memory, pointing at each word, and proudly turning the pages at just the right point in the narrative. Having the pictures there helped. And I did get that half-dollar, which was big money for a three-year-old back in 1966.

Even a children’s book requires craft. Whatever foundations were unconsciously laid, whatever unconscious impressions of voice, character, plot, rhythm, euphony, and even meta-references (“What would you do, if your mother asked you?”) I possess, were shaped by that book. I’m not saying that Cat is the literary flower of Western civilization, but I could have done worse. I was twenty-eight when I found out Dr. Seuss died. Tears flowed while I stood in line at the cash register of the Trident Bookstore on Newbury Street in Boston after getting the news. It was the best place to hear it, since everybody on line with me seemed to be in perfect sympathy.

I’ve taken over half a dozen writing courses since then and learned a lot, but I don’t know if it taught me as much about writing as reading has. I always thought I was the best writer in any group I was in, at least in the top three, and apparently so did my teachers, so what I took away from the classes was more validation than instruction. The sad thing is that those supposedly lesser lights all probably went on writing and got published, while I stalled out. The only place I have not felt like the best writer in the room has been the comments section of Betsy’s blog, but I’ve gotten the most validation there, too, so my writer’s ego is still intact, for good or ill. One thing is certain: talent is not enough. I seem to be missing some other ingredient.

I don’t know if it matters that writing can be taught or not. I believe if you have something worthwhile to say, the way you say it is secondary. Two of the most lean and unadorned writers I know of, Milan Kundera and JM Coetzee (my recent lunch- and bedtime companions), say more on a page than others do in an entire book, even though Kundera has been criticized for “poverty of language,” and Coetzee . . . I don’t know what’s wrong with Coetzee. Maybe that’s why I haven’t taken up writing as a career or vocation; I’m content to think, and to read the thoughts of others. I live too much in my head.

But sometimes those thoughts flare up and smolder within me, creating a heat that can only be relieved by speaking back to the writers who shared them, to say, I hear you, and you have heard me, inside my heart, and you have understood, and this is what I have to say in response. So maybe writing isn’t about having an audience, but a conversation. At least, those are the kinds of books I like to read and, maybe someday, write. But again, it starts with reading, hearing. The art of conversation can be studied; it begins early in life, long before a child learns to speak or even picks up a book, and the teacher may never know what lessons she’s imparting.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Virginia Llorca July 10, 2012 at 11:43 pm

I don’t know if Mr. Geisel knew it or intended it, but The Cat in the Hat, in my experience, was like a key for the little guys. That the marks on the page told you stuff. My daughter read at four and it was like she unlocked the code. The first time I realized she was really reading, she read us a Marmaduke cartoon in the Sunday funnies. When she was 3 and in a stroller, turning pages in a book, we ran into one of my older daughter’s teachers. She said, “She’s reading. . .” I said, “She has it memoriized”. She said, “It’s the same thing.”


Tulasi-Priya July 10, 2012 at 11:54 pm

It is. Our heads are stuffed with words and their connections to each other. If we had to think about all of that we’d go mad.


Sarah W July 11, 2012 at 6:53 am

Stephen King said (sort of) that writing and reading are two halves of a telepathic conversation. I like that.

I agree that talent isn’t enough. Perhaps empathy? If so, you’re covered.


Tulasi-Priya July 13, 2012 at 1:21 am

Empathetic? I wish. I’m all about the tough love, darlin’.


Averil July 16, 2012 at 7:00 pm

I have always liked King’s analogy of the telepathic aspirations of writers. I think the desire to be heard is what’s strongest in writers who do go on to publication. That’s a character flaw in my opinion, but then writers are usually fatally flawed and out to make amends.

Maybe you are more peaceful than that?


Tulasi-Priya July 16, 2012 at 11:22 pm

No artist is peaceful. We only take rests now and again, and then back into the fray. Why do you think the desire to be heard is a character flaw, Averil?


Averil July 17, 2012 at 1:28 pm

It signifies a lack of humility. The people I most aspire to be are the good listeners, those who don’t feel the need to constantly insert themselves into the conversation. Though I suppose there would be no conversation without many of us desiring to be heard, so maybe it’s not the worst character flaw in the world.


Tulasi-Priya July 17, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I think it depends on what you’re saying, and why. I used to always coach my stage-frightened friends with the reminder, “It’s not about you.” There’s a huge difference between Snooki’s memoirs and Coetzee’s. Some things just need to be said, and writers are often the person who says them for everyone who is too humble/shy/cowardly to do so. And even if it is egotistical, it also takes a certain kind of humility to put yourself out there and risk criticism, ridicule, and rejection for telling the truth, whether it’s your truth, or “the Truth.” I don’t think repressive governments and religious authorities always round up the poets and writers first merely because they’re shameless exhibitionists. 😉

Tulasi-Priya July 17, 2012 at 4:23 pm

And you’re one of the most humble writers I’ve ever seen, Averil! Sorry, my love; there may be some arrogant, self-important writers out there, but you are not one of them. Nor are most of the writers we know personally, I should think. But the more I think about it, it’s plain that I am not a good listener, and am also quite prone to insert myself into conversations. It’s a constant struggle.

Harry iPants August 6, 2012 at 8:44 pm

This is wonderful T.P.
I had none of these beautiful books, but every Saturday night we drove into the city, and I’d look at all the signs and ask my mum what they said. Then when I was four I’d hide away in my room and try to read Wind in the Willows. It had no pictures, and was hard to read, and I felt like I was being really bad.
But now, I love Dr Seuss…
And I love what you said in the comments about why they round up poets and writers first. It is sadly, and happily, true.


Tulasi-Priya August 6, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Harry: I loved WiiW! Interesting that you mentioned signs. Our family moved to from Florida to California—and back!—twice!—in a year. All the way my stepfather taught me to read from signs. Sometime during that period, when I was in first grade, they gave me a vocabulary test at one of the five schools I attended that year. Apparently I went off the charts. I remember being in a room with a slide projector, reading the words that were flashed on the wall/screen (can’t remember which), and different grown-ups kept entering the room, asking me to read. I could tell they were whispering about me and I remember feeling excited at all the attention I was getting. They later told me I had tenth-grade (or was it seventh?) reading level. Not that it did me much good; I had a terrible attention span and never did a lick of homework if I could help it.


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