Why I Pretend to be a Writer

Posted on 04/19/2007

I believe I have always been a writer, but it took me years to discover it. Even now I worry that soon everyone will realize I’m an imposter. I thought I knew for sure when my brother wrote home from wherever he was stationed in the Air Force at the time that, of all the letters he received (and was grateful for all), the ones he most looked forward to were mine. Oh I was so proud.

This was around the time I wrote to him about Uncle Jarvis’s funeral, how I’d gotten a headache because I had been forced to sit near Aunt Willie whom I’d deigned was either too fat or too lazy to bathe and the stink was unbearable. Aunt Willie’s BO was a well-known occurrence within the family. He had liked that particular letter so much that he shared it with his buddies and they had all laughed. I knew then and there that I wanted to be a writer although I never told anybody else as I kept most things of any importance to myself. I think I never told anyone because I didn’t want to hear anyone ever say “no, you can’t!”

A few years ago, however, one of my writing professors at Ohio State U asked our class during a discussion of various authors’ first awareness of themselves as writers, When did you first know you were a writer? Forced to think about it for the first time, I realized that while I had only recently begun to write in earnest, I had in fact been writing all my life—in my head.

When I was very young my family was very poor and there was little to do for entertainment when we weren’t helping out on the farm. When I’d accomplished my assigned chores and could get away to play, one of my favorite past times was to slip away to my “made-up village.” It was located on a sandy place at the side of the house, and would eventually become the location of the septic tank for our first indoor toilet. I’d chosen this location because I thought the Chinaberry tree there provided a dramatic backdrop as well as a fine shade from the Florida sun.

To build my made-up village I filched wood slab pieces and chipped cinder blocks from the discard pile behind the barn. They made nice little houses, single story with the wood pieces and two-story concretes (cinder blocks) for the richer people, just as I knew it to be real life. In the barn I found small pieces of wire to fashion into little horses. It might take anywhere from 20 to 30 small strips of used tobacco twine tied along the length of the head shape to make frilly little manes that made it look a little like a horse. I remember my fingers aching from the effort, but I always had at least one little horse worthy of being called “Trigger,” Roy Roger’s famous horse every kid knew and loved.

One of the nicest things about Mr. Willy’s farm that we sharecropped was that you could find just about anything in the way of scrap material since no one ever threw anything away that could be tossed into a pile behind the barn in case it was needed later. An imaginative child could find use for just about anything, especially if you were the daughter of a man locally known for his ability to repair anything with a length of scrap chicken wire or duct tape.

My village was inhabited by stick dolls that had cotton hair made from the cotton filler that I got from the insides of aspirin and medicine containers, held in place with crowns made from scraps of tinfoil. The girls wore mostly tinfoil dresses while the boys were more or less plain because I just couldn’t see boys in fancy tinfoil clothes. You only needed to “see” the clothes in your head in any case.

I carried on pretend lives in these villages for weeks at a time, until finally one day Mama would get around to cleaning up that part of the yard and make me dismantle “the mess” that I called my city.

Sometimes I used a wildflower that grew close to the ground in little curlicues (that I wish I knew the name of) to make girls. Broken into roper stem-lengths and turned upside down these wildflowers looked to me like ladies dressed in fancy purple jodhpurs, the fashion for all little cowgirls to envy. These little fancy-panted girls could easily sit astride a wire horse with a beautiful white mane while the horses wire hoofs made wonder scuffmarks in the dirt.

It was a mini-microcosm-world and I loved it. As its creator, I was God, the boss. My people were often injured or broke when I pressed too hard making them walk. Then,off the doctor or double-cinder block hospital. Out would come the tinfoil scraps and I would try to patch the broken people together, but often they were never the same. Eventually they all died.

Which was okay. Because death leads to grief and heartbreak and funerals and survivors. The story could go on and on and on. I believe that is when I became a writer, or at least a teller of stories.

Wintersong Postcript: “Our farm” was actually owned by a Mr. Willy Farnell a man I always considered “the rich man” who owned a dry-cleaning business in Georgia and inherited the 100-acre farm and could not work it himself. Shortly after my father returned from his time in WWII with a wife and four kids to support and no money in sight, we moved into the big old formally white farm house where we would spend the next dozen years and I would grow up. It was big but undeniably not modern except for running water. We lived there for some time before Mr. Willy finally approved the expense of adding plumbing. I don’t remember anyone in our family ever complaining that we would no longer have to avail ourselves of the outdoor privy.

Otherwise known as an outhouse, ours was a spiffy model. It was a fairly wide two-seater, with space enough between the holes to hold a couple of Sears Roebuck catalogs that were very useful. At first I remember being very much afraid that my little bum would slide down the hole to be met by rattle snake fangs or moccasins I was convinced were hiding there to bite me.

 In time I grew a bigger bum and was able to get up there and sit with my britches hanging down around my ankles. If the offering to the snake pit currently being considered was #2 as opposed to #1, it sometimes took a while, and so I’d pick up a catalog to look at the pictures on what pages were left. When the mission was accomplished I’d turn the pages to select one of the less slick pages without colored pictures as toilet paper.

 In time all went well enough during daylight hours, but considerably more difficult to downright impossible during a dark and rainy night. Come to think of it, this subject definitely calls for more than a footnote and may claim a posting of its own sometime in the future. Here and now, in 2007, it’s almost incomprehensible to me that I actually experienced this kind of life, measured as it is by all the changes in my world over the past 50 years.

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