Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What writing meant to me

Been figuring out the whole twitter-verse thing and discovered a writing challenge I missed from Thom G (almost a year late is better than never, right?). Here it is: What does writing mean to me?

I feel like I need another ten months to come up with the answer. It's like those questions in a 5-year journal that a friend gave to me -- instead of writing what you did each day, you answer a question -- some kind of innocuous, like "East Coast or West Coast?" and some nearly impossible, like "What is true?" Then you compare how the answer changes over the five years.

My answer to this question has changed over the years too. I'm using 'writing' interchangeably with 'imagination' because so much of writing occurs before you ever pick up a pen.

It started early. For the most part it remained in the background, a tool for playground games, a sand bucket to form imaginary rules and shape scenarios. I played with neighborhood friends long past dusk, inventing wild adventures, protected from real ones. Everything was as it should be.

But as Janet Burroway will tell any fiction writer, Only trouble is interesting.

When I was ten years old we moved -- only an hour and a half away, same state. But it was a different place with a different mindset, and I went from being well-liked to the object of ridicule in a matter of days. Painful pre-teen years are almost a universal experience; more so when bullying is daily and damaging and continues for years.

When I think about what writing means to me, invariably I think about this time in my life.It’s not something I’ve written about before and for a long time I think I had denied its impact or failed to recognize it or just didn’t want to think about it.

I won't venture too deeply into the details, other than to say it was significant enough that I was forced to change my routine, and that the residue from the experience still lingers. I can trace my biggest mistakes and worst problems back to those years.

Why was I targeted? I was new. Gawky. Smart. I couldn't fathom why knowing the right answer and having the right vocabulary was bad. I wanted to learn, I had liked school, but the first thing I learned at this new place was not to draw attention to myself.

I stopped raising my hand.

I stopped asking questions. And with rare exception, that continued for the rest of my education, including college.

The frustration was immense, particularly in math classes where if you don't understand one concept before you move on, you're sunk. Teachers couldn't figure out why I was failing. They thought I was lazy, and one thought I simply didn't have the capacity to learn math and said so during class. I believed her.

There were other targets -- offbeat girls, too-tall girls, poor girls, trailer park girls -- and we found each other naturally, orbiting each other like misfit planets in our own secret universe. I was lucky in the fact that I had friends and family who I felt connected to. Too many kids who are bullied have neither.

I had something else, too.

My imagination took things to the next level. I daydreamed and I wrote stories. The bullies became grotesque villians who were vanquished by unlikely heroes, the stuff comic books are made of.
But more often they stayed out of my imagined scenarios, banished from my imagined worlds, which bloomed out of stories I read and loved. I rode horses and solved mysteries with Trixie Belden and her friends. I was Luke Skywalker's sister before I knew he really had one. I traveled to strange planets and explored and spied and rescued and escaped.

It got me through. And it was the seed of something bigger. I'll never know what I lost in terms of my education -- where I might have ended up had I felt encouraged and safe to learn at school. On my worst days this thought makes me spiral into a cyclone of resentment and anger. At the same time, I recognize this as the incredibly impressionable, pivotal time when the spark of my imagination had plenty of fuel and began to burn in earnest.

And let's make no mistake here -- I wasn't always the victim. Few of us can say say we never laughed at the expense of someone else, that we never instigated, that we always stepped in and said stop. We stay silent. I haven't done enough myself -- I haven't spoken loudly about this; failed to use the forum I had in newspapers. But perhaps it was still too close, and I suppose at least I have a sense of the impact, the benefit of knowing the damage.

The experience made me more compassionate, perhaps to a fault. When I teach my adult fiction students, I can see on some of their faces what it took to sign up, walk into the classroom and sit down. Sometimes they tell me, and the weight of their vulnerability is almost too heavy to hold.

And then we get to writing. Sometimes it becomes a catalyst for healing, and sometimes it just cracks open a door that we didn't know could ever open again.

Thank God people have been talking more about bullying – the trial of the former Rutgers student whose roommate committed suicide; Mitt Romney's "apology" for a horrific incident that he says he doesn't remember, a Facebook poem that led to an outpouring of support for a former classmate who was bullied. Bullying is the subject of a documentary released in 2011. The Sioux City Journal recently published a rare front-page editorial against bullying after a teen committed suicide. Anti-bullying rallies and discussions and groups are so encouraging, so important especially now when the Internet provides a mass audience for ridicule. But we still have a long way to go.

We are still a culture that celebrates surfaces more than depth. We love it when reality TV displays the worst in people. We laugh when late-night hosts joke about actresses being overweight or underweight. All of these things tell us as a culture that it's okay, it's acceptable to be cruel, and yet we're mystified when our children do it. We keep seeing the tragic results when students don’t believe they have any support, that the abuse will never stop, or when they have no healthy outlet for frustration or fantasies of revenge. Yet we continue to make cuts in school funding – classrooms get bigger, school counselors are shuffled around districts and arts programs are the first to go.

Things got better for me.

After junior high we moved again and when I started high school things were different. A bigger school, a bigger city, a little more leeway to be myself. I settled into the punky art crowd, and I got a lot cuter. My imagination was mostly hijacked by anxious run-on musings about what boy was thinking what about who. My outlet became the drama club, an incongruity in my otherwise silent education. But there I wasn't putting myself on the line, I was someone else -- a mythical creature behind a homemade mask; a vampire. Backstage we mixed food coloring and corn syrup for blood while a Violent Femmes mix tape blasted from someone's boom box, and together we formed another kind of tribe.

Later, in a college class on natural resources, my imagination reawakened after a hibernation, a time in chrysalis, emerging semi-mature and powerful. I began to write a novel.

What does writing mean to me? It is my constant. It's the thing that has always remained real and steady when everything else was shaky and nebulous. If I said writing used to be my method of healing or my escape, I suppose that would be true. But now it's no longer the thing that hides me, but instead unmasks everything else.


~ kjb said...

Wow, Nkki. You are really good.

Colleen Sutherland, storyteller said...

Wonderful piece! I wonder how many of us went through the whole thing. I certainly did, then when I got taller than the bullies, I beat the crap out of them, and that was that. Never had to do it again. I explained to my son who had the same experience that sooner or later he would have to do the same thing. He did. It was the only fight he has had in his life. And he stands up for bullies.
These days, I just write a short story. Less blood, more enjoyment.

jpeak0930 said...

I also experienced what you did, Nikki, moving from one school district, where I was one of the most popular kids, to a more rural school district, where I was ridiculed and made fun of. I got in fights and gave up caring about school. My outlet then wasn't writing, but the outdoors...hunting, trapping, fly fishing. It wasn't until college that I finally figured out that I wanted to write, and now I don't do it often enough.

Purple Houses said...

Thanks, all. I appreciate the kind comments and sharing your experiences (Colleen -- I could've won a dance-off, maybe?) (Jim -- yes, you should write more, you do it so well.)

ThomG said...

Just a great piece. I've read it three times now, and I keep finding new nuggets of wisdom.

Purple Houses said...

Thanks, Thom -- I appreciate it.

Jon said...

I'll have to start visiting Purple Houses more often--especially when I'm greeted with nice pieces like this. Wow.

Nikki, thanks for sharing your story. I'm inspired.

I'm sorry your path took some painful turns, but trust me when I say we're all the better for the fact that it brought you here and now.

Please, please keep up the fine work!

Purple Houses said...

Jon, your comments mean a lot -- thank you.