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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Hello Darkness My Old Friend

Sometimes I think that all writing is an attempt not to disappear, not in the sense of being immortalized, but in the act itself, the actual writing. That every pen-stroke or key-stroke is a way of refusing to be erased, a way of making sure you’re still there.

I used to write in the crawl space beneath the stairs when I was 10.  I had a diary with a thin gold rule around the edges and a lock that a butterfly could pick. In there I confessed my hatred for my best friend, the ongoing torment from my older sister, my great love of hot dogs. When I think of myself down there, the blanket and pillow I purloined from the guest room, the shadeless lamp, I could really cry. Why did I need that makeshift bunker? What was I so desperate to express and why did I have to hide it?

I had no idea that I would grow up and help countless writers out of their bunkers, help them with their books, see the light of day. Though I have a few writers with a positive outlook, I’ve mostly observed that writing comes out of darkness, that writing seeks light. I think that’s what I was doing in my bunker when I first found words.  I would love to hear from other writers who wrote as children or teens and what they recall of their first efforts.

38 Responses

  1. When I was a child, my life was a continual play with an imaginary audience. I wanted to be an actor then. I was always acting in my personal play. At the end of a given performance, I would take applause from the audience in the street in front of our house. I remember telling my best friend once to take a bow. It wasn’t until much later that I converted these “plays” into writing. The ideas of them, rather than the acting in them. This is the first time I’ve confessed this and it’s a bit of a revelation for me to express it in writing.

  2. When I was a child, I used to sneak away to the attic and sit on top of a pile of insulation to write. I think I mostly liked the romanticized notion of writing as a secret act–already I knew about Emily Dickinson and had my fantasies about posthumous fame. But I think there was a part of me even back then that yearned for the affirmation of existence you speak of. Somehow, no matter how bleak or desperate our thoughts are, they become easier to bear when we are able to articulate them. I still find this to be true, and I suspect Emily would concur.

  3. I started out with one of those same little journals with the crappy lock. It was given to me, by an aunt or my grandmother I think. I tried to write in it every day (Even before I knew how to write very well. And I mean that in a “not good at the alphabet yet” kind of way.)

    After awhile, I realized that “Played with my friends. Had hot dogs for dinner” wasn’t a very exciting story. So I started making things up. I haven’t stopped yet.

  4. At fifteen I sat in the back of the chapel when I was a boarder at my convent school and wrote things down in my large green notebook out of sight of the nuns and my fellow students.

    Mostly I wrote about the angst of life in a convent, away from my family, silenced otherwise but desperate to record and thereby preserve my thoughts.

    • A boarder at a convent school — that would be total SOM fantasy for me. Do you still have the notebooks?

  5. Before going to sleep each night I would pick a book off an imaginary bookshelf–a book I wrote in my mind. ‘Randy: Last Person on Earth after Bomb’ was a popular one. Gee, wonder if it was because of all those bomb drills where we hid under our desks.

    Are desks still considered the school-recommended best protection against attacks against our country?

    The imaginary books I wrote–my ‘what ifs’–were what I used to manage a scary and unusual childhood.

  6. I wrote a story and then made it into a book by taping paper together and folding it over. I used Barbie dolls and posed them to correspond with the story, took photos and developed the b&w’s with my dad in his darkroom.

    So I guess I was an author at 10. 😉

    At 12 I composed poetry that filled an entire 2″ 3-ring binder.

    I don’t have any of that – but the memories help to remind me that I have always been a writer. It’s a good feeling.

  7. As a kid I’d write hiding away in the bottom of my wardrobe with a torch. Sometimes there were contraband cookies too!

  8. […] am · Filed under books, dreams, life shit, werds This is a response to Betsy Lerner’s post on diaries. It’s kind of too long to post as a […]

  9. Love this post!

    i started writing a comment that got pretty long so I posted it on my blog instead:

    http://thegirlworks.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/when-the-child-was-a-child/

  10. I was too busy with chores…I grew up on a farm. Didn’t get a library book until I was 13; all I had to read was my grandma’s True Love magazines, and then Nunc Minos gave me some Little LuLu comic books. Then I immediately graduated, without a hint of transition, to Faulkner. Then I started to write in my head until my sister gave me a diary to write in and then I found out that my brother was reading it. He’s still a jerk. . . a good man, indeed, is hard to find. One agent told me that my work was “an increidble read” and then rejected me. I wish I had my Little LuLu comic books back. The publishing industry works in strange ways, but lets hear it for big pharm that gets many a writer through the day. Hundreds of agents, thousands of writers, millions of books, and perhaps 10% (help me here) of the public actually reads books. Yesterday morning I went to B&N, which is often soul-smashing (You meet Sara Palin as you walk in, the first book, yipes) and as I sipped my latte and read Killing Rommel( It’s a great book!) I noticed that I was the only person there reading a book; other talking, newspapers, magazine….no books and Botcelli was singing christmans songs. I see a counselor, take my meds, but, dear lord, I still want to slap someone some days. All I want to do is write and have at least a few people read my stuff. . . maybe I’ll pass it out to the people at B&N…..nah, you can be an independent musician, an independend film maker….you are praised for your ingenuity, but don’t ever produce your own book for public consumption….you are immediately a hack…like, say, Whitman.

  11. Heh. At four, I sat down at the kitchen table to be ‘a writer’. All I had was a piece of notebook paper, a pencil and a book. I was going to ‘write’ Robinson Crusoe. LOL And I copied darn near four paragraphs before I got bored.

    My real start at writing was at 14 when my best friend and I collaborated on a SciFi. She started it longhand and I took it over with my trusty portable typewriter. I still have the big blue folder with all our combined efforts stuffed inside. Twenty years of teen poetry followed by fits and starts at other novels later, I finished my first book.

  12. I wonder at the gender breakdown. My scientific survey indicates that girls write from darkness into light, and boys write about people they’d like to kill

  13. Contrary to the stereotype, I was actually an outgoing and confident writer at an early age, selling purple-inked mimeographed copies of my stories to my third-grade classmates for ten cents each. Then, a few years later, I came home one day to find my proud mother holding my notebook of poetry, and reading my poems aloud to her friend. Not reading my little stories intended for public consumption, but my POETRY–filled with every private thought and feeling inside my tortured eleven-year-old soul. I was mortified. I promptly threw the entire notebook in the trash and didn’t write again for months. And then I stuck to the safe cloak of fiction for years.

  14. as a small child, it was imaginative play, mostly outside.

    as a teenager, i used to draw and, most of the time, i drew people. i was and am fascinated by people, capturing an expression on their face. so, i now write character driven short stories and attempt to capture a small moment of emotional life.

    as an old woman, i’ll be rearranging my sweaters.

  15. Tinkerbelle wand from Disneyland under the covers and in the walk in closet and in the backseat of the car. Driven, driven, driven. Could only see one word at a time, but that was enough. My little dark heart hating everyone I was supposed to love. That’s where I began.

  16. Maybe it’s because, at base, writing is such an internal, personal thing. It doesn’t matter how good you are, or how proflific, profound, pronounced, or simply Pro … it all starts with just you and the thought behind the words, and sometimes the only way to reach them is to sit in the dark, away from distractions. (Or something like that.)

  17. Loss. Plain and simple. Find an amazing story without that human complaint at the core.

  18. Nobody wrote where I cam from but everybody was a storyteller.

  19. My second-grade teacher entered one of my classroom exercises, a three-page story narrated by a reporter covering Jesus ‘ Crucifixion and Resurrection, in a national creative writing contest for children. I remember those pages well: scrawled and ink-blotty, dripping with pieties, very Bible Belt. And lo! I won Honorable Mention, a mention in the local newspaper. A few weeks later a carton of hardcover children’s books arrived, valued at $250 in 1973 dollars. Some classics: Stuart Little, Little House in the Big Woods, English Folk & Fairy Tales, a collection of limericks, a sumptuous oversized translation of C. Colodi*’s original Pinocchio with its accompanying 1920’s illustrations. At the bottom of the carton was a gold-leaf certificate, my name flowing in an elegant calligraphy (something I’d never seen before), and signed by the three judges, one of whom was Clifton Fadiman, some New York literary muckety-muck at the time.

    Today those books would be worth a fortune, but unfortunately they were lost when my parents sold their house during my college years. I’m still mourning the Pinocchio. In any event, this early episode convinced me I should stop wanting to be a dentist when I grew up, and pursue something far more lucrative, like writing.

    * — I think “C. Colodi” was the name, time to check teh Google or Wikipedia.

  20. As an angst-filled pre-teen, I wrote poetry that rhymed and fantasy stories where I was not part of my own nerdy family, but rather the sexy and well-loved sister of Daisy Duke. In my later teen years, my mother confessed to picking up one of her kids’ diaries, just once, and being mortified. She said she never snuck a look again because it was too disturbing to know what we were thinking. I was sure it was my diary that she read and not my sister’s. I was so embarrassed I didn’t write again for almost twenty years. And now I write about booze.

  21. I wrote in diaries with bad locks that one of my mean sisters would pick open, read, and then blab to the whole world. Later I got more and more elaborate – huge notebooks with calendars and hundreds of resolutions, wish lists, and warnings to intruders.

  22. I don’t remember when I started writing but I do remember showing my best friend a little book I’d written for the Prep kids in grade 2 (about which she said “but nothing happens” and I spent the afternoon with my head in my lift-top desk – so the teacher wouldn’t see lol – giving it a middle and an end.)

    Most of what I wrote wasn’t for show, though, I definitely relate to Betsy’s words; I wrote to escape to places where I could BE, in that moment, AS I wrote. All my main characters were me till I was at least fifteen and, probably thanks to Star Wars, everything but my very early stories were sci-fi and/or fantasy. From the age of about 10 I realized that when I was writing my mother thought I was doing homework and it was one of the few things I could do with relative freedom. Nevertheless, I wrote in a code which I use to this day if I feel blocked.
    I know exactly why I needed to do that and, while I sometimes cry for the little girl who needed to, I never cry for the little girl writing because she was finding her way through the darkness and out the other side. Other kids in a similar situation got into far more trouble than I, rebelling in far more real and dangerous ways than I did on paper, and they didn’t make it to adulthood whole. Writing got me through and gave me a skill and a dream, to boot! 😀

  23. […] post at Betsy Lerner’s wonderful blog, today, asked why those of us afflicted with narrative disorder at a young age began to write. It […]

  24. I read continually as a child. Some of my earliest memories, and I don’t have many very early ones, have books in them. I decided I was going to write a book when I was seven; I remember the paper, I remember I stapled construction paper to make the cover, but I don’t remember the story. Something about clowns or the circus, I think, although I don’t like either one much at all.

    And I remember sitting in the center of my bed as a sixteen and seventeen year old, writing in a big book of blank pages my dad had brought home from work. it was some sort of ledger, but I used it for my writing.
    A few of the lines from one of the poems are all I remember of those.

    And when I was about twenty I worked to write a novel; but I played at it rather than wrote, as I didn’t believe I could do it, although I never admitted that to myself. I’ve only in the past few years realized/remembered why those attempts floundered; why it took me so long to be able to write, and to finish stories, and a novel. And those recovered reasons are part of the novel.

  25. I din’t start writing until I was 70 years old. I had always wanted to write but I was too busy as an engineer. My mind was always very active solving problems even at night before i fell asleep. When I retired I couldn’t put my mind in neutral. So I started to write. I coun’t see myself as a couch potato.

  26. Yup. Hence Nabokov titling his memoir “Conclusive Evidence”–of his having existed.

    (But then he agreed to CHANGE it on the (25th?) anniversary reprint. Worst mistake of his career.)

    And hence I named my blog after it.

  27. ok, my new plan is to come here after everyone has gone and leave little scraps for no one to see.

    in this case, i got a google alert about my name nearly a week ago, composed a response in my head, in the car, but never got to the typing stage. but just have to. so . . .

    i used to think i wrote my first slew of short stories in 4th grade, when i jumped at the chance to write a primer for the young kids, and i wrote “Movie Star Mouse” about a diva who strings one of the servants up by his toenails for not meeting her demands fast enough, and other stories, which i just whipped out. and i had the bug.

    but recently i realized that you don’t have to write them down to be writing. it really started when i was 4 or 5 or 6, co-writing this opus out loud with my brother joey in our bunk beds when we went to bed every night. he was two years older, so he took the top bunk and i was beneath him. seven of the nine kids had been birthed by then, so that little house was a perpetual riot scene and we could blab pretty freely for awhile before my parents went to bed.

    we would lie down and pick up the story where we left off the night before. we spent a couple years, i think, on this ranch-hand story, which included us and a bunch of invented characters. i can’t remember the plot, but it was very important to us. so were the characters. we would argue over scenes: whether the character would ever act like that, whether the action had grown sluggish, when we needed someone more interesting to bust in and shake things up . . .

    we revised scenes all the time: sometimes we realized we had messed the plot up earlier, and we cut or redid a scene from days or weeks before, to make the new development work, or we needed to add something earlier to set it up.

    we didn’t have this terminology, but we were arguing over character, plot, pacing, motivation, the paucity of moral dilemmas . . . we just wanted it to be a good story. just because stories should be good.

    if we had written it down, it might have been a novel of six or eight hundred pages. it’s kind of murky, but at some point i recall us getting bored with the story and the characters, so we put it to rest and started up a whole new one.

    i don’t know how many years this went on. five to ten, i’d guess.

    so that’s WHAT i first did. the question was why did we start, so i have to look back there to find out. we did it because we loved to. i don’t know about joey (joed now), but the chicago suburbs and my life there insanely boring, and i wanted to invent a world where cool stuff happened. where difficult choices had to be made. where i could act heroic–but was i prepared to pay the consequences? did i really want to fuck around without that leg for the next three years of the story?

    more than that, though, i wanted to create. i wanted to try it out, see what we could come up with. we loved the stories that were read to us, and i wanted to do that to. i just heard the calling when i heard them: i want to do that. so we tried, and we loved it and i couldn’t stop.

  28. oh, so i forgot to include the one bit i actually wrote down last week:

    for me, the eternal question: “Why do people act that way?” I either find interesting situations to answer that, or I make some up. (Ie, either journalism or fiction.)

    that was/is a big part of it. i remember some class i went to where they gave us a personality test, sorted us by table and then labeled our brain styles according to what question drove us: each of the 5 Ws and H. the engineers were all in the “how” category and . . . i can’t remember where all the other boring people ended up. hahaha. but i was borderline between the “why” and the one i ended up in, a different category they made up called the “what if.” we were people less interested in the actual stuff around us than the imaginary possibilities we were making up in our heads. that sure seemed to fit.

    but for me i’m making up those worlds mainly to explore the why. usually the shit going on around me isn’t nearly interesting enough to explore it well. i want much dramatic situations, with starker dilemmas, where all six options suck, but it’s always about exploring why humans behave the way they do.

    journalism is sometimes good–once i got out of the daily crap–because i get to find actual situations that are intense (say, two kids trying to blow up their high school and shooting people when that failed) to do that. but man, i still like making stuff up. someday, betsy will let me work on a novel again. hahaha.

  29. I had a black light and posters in my closet. I would read a couple of pages from Babel, and I would get in the closet with my pad and pen and a thesaurus. Sometimes I fell asleep in there. Most of the time I marveled at how many words there were for death.

  30. […] time … Jump to Comments Betsy Lerner had an interesting post on her blog recently. In it, she mentions how as a kid she wrote in the crawl space under the stairs […]

  31. Betsy, you are deep, and I love that! I connect with you and your writing. I am so glad I found your blog.

    I come from a background not far from the character Precious in the book, Push. When I wrote growing up it was only in the form of journals that ended up as prayers. I wrote to God a lot. What I didn’t know then was that I was really writing to myself. It was away to comfort and understand my chaotic world.

    By my junior year in hs I was emotionally exhuasted and quit on the third day.I stopped writing because I believed what I was told and thought I was too dumb; I had dyslexia but didn’t know it at the time and my parents were too messed up to be my advocates.

    I started writing again last year at the age of 38 when I decided to stop defining myself by my past. I am nothing like them, and I have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

    And let me tell you it is very intimidating to read agent/author blogs with their amazing voices and perfect grammar. I want that so bad. I have so far to go and on somedays I do ask myself “What the fuck are you doing?” But then for some reason I find myself right back at it. I think of that song with the lyric, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.” Even if I don’t ever get published I would just like to have the ability to write a beautiful piece of art.

    It’s difficult to learn the basics and the things I missed out on in school on my own. But for some reason I can’t stop. I keep telling myself It doesn’t matter that I have a GED or that I don’t have a degree. I can read, and there are a ton of great writing books out there. (BTW Betsy, I just bought your book. I can’t wait to dig in!)
    The good thing is I have come a VERY long way in one year. I now know the diference between a colon and a semi-colon! lol (One must always have a sense of humor!) So, I know if I keep pushing I will get there!

  32. […] post at Betsy Lerner’s wonderful blog, today, asked why those of us afflicted with narrative disorder at a young age began to write. It […]

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