“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” – Beatrix Potter
My love of books, of language, of the power of words, started very early. From the time I was a tiny tot, my parents read me a bedtime story every night. My favourite books back then were the charming tales by Beatrix Potter. Who could resist the likes of Mrs. Tiggywinkle and Squirrel Nutkin? To help prolong the life of these beloved volumes, my mother made covers for them from purple-flowered wallpaper left over from my room. The beautifully-illustrated little hardcover books still wear those slipcovers and occupy a special place on my bookshelves to this day.
Perhaps because my parents instilled a love of books in me from such an early age, I became adept at reading and writing. (My mom also encouraged me to sing before I could read, which I believe helped develop my ear for music.) Spelling always came easily, and I was never confounded by the rules of grammar.
“let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences” – Sylvia Plath
I took typing classes in high school. Throughout those years and in university, I wrote all my papers on a manual Underwood typewriter similar to the one pictured here. (The circa 1912 machine in the photos belonged to my husband’s grandfather, a clergyman who likely used it to compose his sermons and prayers.) Our old typewriter was already a relic when it was handed down to me; frustratingly, the e (the most frequently-used letter in the English language) always got stuck. Imagine how pleased I was later on when, with the proceeds of a stint as a community college English teacher, I was able to purchase – wonder of wonders! – an electric typewriter! This was before personal computers became a household staple, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.Although my language skills were pretty polished, I didn’t yet have a firm understanding of punctuation. In a university Old English course, as we studied the Venerable Bede, the Great Vowel Shift and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, I learned a valuable lesson. My professor (we’ll call him Æthelbert) handed back a graded essay of mine. The first couple of pages were covered in red Xs; after that, there was one last acerbic note from the prof. He was thoroughly exasperated with my overuse of commas, he said, and would I, please, stop using them, before he acted on his desperate urge, to commit a rather, unfortunate, violent act. His plea was followed by about a dozen exclamation points.
I took the hint and cleaned up my grammatical act. Thanks in part to Professor Æthelbert, I went on to earn my degree in languages, literature and translation.
I’ve always found it easier to write my thoughts down rather than express them verbally, especially if I’m struggling with a decision or when I’m upset. The process of getting thoughts, feelings and frustrations down on paper is cathartic and therapeutic. And I’ll often think – hours later – of what I should have said: a biting response or a witty bit of repartee. Far too late, I know, but churning words over in my mind and writing them down helps me work through problems and see things more clearly. No one will ever read those scribblings, but I almost always feel better.
“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Around 2010, I began work on a novel. It’s based on dreams I had when I was much younger, and the fantasy has been growing and morphing and causing agonizing self-doubt about my writing abilities ever since. There have been days and nights when I sit down at my laptop, forgoing food and drink, conversation and participation in real life for long stretches. Suddenly, I’ll look up to find that, whilst I’ve been lost in my dream world of words, testing phrases on my tongue and searching for le mot juste, a full eight hours have flown by. My characters have lived, loved, fought and sometimes died, and I’ve rejoiced, struggled and wept along with them. Nothing else exists for me during this time, and I’m at my happiest when I’m tapping away in this world, alone yet not alone.
That novel is far from finished. Sometimes I go great guns, writing pages and pages; other times, I feel the thing is complete rubbish. Certainly the story has strayed far from where it started, and that doesn’t sit right with me. I know I need to make major changes to its plot and structure, but for the last couple of years I’ve been stricken with a terrible case of writer’s block, an inability to see how it can be done. There are other big issues going on in my life which are undoubtedly damming the creative flow. Perhaps when I sort those out, I can get back to doing what I love most.