I grew up in Evergreen, Colorado and moved to Virginia at sixteen. The Colorado Rockies are an amazing place to grow up; turquoise skies and jagged mountain peaks loomed outside my classroom window. There were often elk at my bus stop. The little town of Evergreen held a summer festival, the Colorado Philharmonic Orchestra played by the lake on the Fourth of July, and the Kiwanis Club sold Christmas trees at the Hardware store in December. My pediatrician was my best friend’s dad, and I could walk–through a meadow full of wildflowers–to the movie theater, where movies were always three dollars.
Now I live in Alexandria, Virginia, with my husband and four mostly grown-up kids who come and go, and an outrageous parrotlet. Every day on the way to school, the Potomac River is beside us, sparkling in the sun, and in the summer, we have taken a picnic dinner to eat on the steps of the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorial. The traffic is terrible and I have lost track of what going to the movies costs, but it’s green and gorgeous and interesting here. I have wanted to be a writer since second grade, and I have published a little here and there, busy raising four amazing people most of the time.
When I was thirteen, I read a book by Madeleine L’Engle called Ilsa. It was nothing like her sci-fi books for kids; it was very old-fashioned, southern fiction with a rambling plot and a sad ending. But it grabbed at my heart and my brain and shook them around a bit, and I have never forgotten it. It was all light and beauty; beautiful, complicated prose about a beautiful, complicated heroine who was a serious artist. (A painter maybe? I writer? I forget, but I wanted to be a serious artist so I loved her.) The words on the page made me feel like I’d taken a giant breath of autumn air, laced with joy and melancholy, highs and lows. Like I’d won a lottery and my dog died, like I’d been loved and betrayed and loved again (I was thirteen).
I kept reading, and I am grateful to all the books that I couldn’t put down, and grateful that there were no blogs back then, no internet. I’d have gotten distracted and watched Youtube instead of reading. But there wasn’t, so I read books that made me want to be a writer. Ilsa was one of the first. Then there was The Small Rain, Giant, The Thorn Birds, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird and My Antonia. I went through a Southern fiction phase, devouring Pat Conroy and Anne Rivers Siddons, and then a British Romantic phase, weeping over Tess of the D’Urbervilles and aching over Wuthering Heights. Then it didn’t happen for a long time. That magic seemed to be gone. Everything I read was dull, or had an agenda, or was what I then called “Cheerleader Fiction.” Books by authors who were good storytellers, maybe, but not good writers. I grew up, and started finding that magic again sometimes, by accident, when I stumble across someone who writes with poignant accuracy, or whose characters seem more real than most of the people I know. I won’t name them here, but they do exist, and I still get swept up, forgetting to eat. I wish it would happen more often. I’d be thinner.
Well. I’m not Madeleine L’Engle. I’m no Thomas Hardy, no Edna Ferber or Colleen McCullough, no Betty Smith or Harper Lee or Willa Cather. But I can dream. I can play with words on a page and try to capture moments and feelings and contain them for the reader, for a moment, in a sentence, a paragraph. If I feel I put it down with accuracy and beauty, and if somebody–even just one person–reads it and laughs, or thinks oh, I have known exactly that feeling, then I will be happy. I’ll have captured a little, imperfect but beautiful picture of humanity and framed it, and said Here: look.