That’s me there. The girl in the brown and white saddle shoes. Clunky. Out of place even at her own desk. Worried that she doesn’t belong. Eager to please. Working her little fingers to nubbins trying to copy the cursive handwriting she is taught to do. Always wondering, watching for the weather of the classroom to change. Never wanting to be on the receiving end of any teacher’s ire. Crying into her desk if it is aimed at her. She does what she’s told.
So when in the second grade I am asked that perennial kid question, I respond, wanting to please. I do what I am told. This time, I don’t even need to consider. I simply write it down.
I want to be a writer when I grow up.
Where does this come from? My father drives a truck. My mother works in a bakery. Grandparents work at a factory, on a railroad. What is there that turns me to storytelling? Something. And how, at seven, do I know this so clearly, so firmly? The world loves a mystery.
I want to be a writer when I grow up.
“Now Ruth,” Mrs. Waltz (or was it Mrs. Wood?) said in that sweet-sounding voice of hers–the one that I knew really meant business. “You know the correct word for this.” Mrs. Waltz/Mrs. Wood could not resist the temptation of teaching vocabulary (who among us teacher-types can?).
I did know. And so I changed my answer, rewrote my desire. Altered the name of what I really wanted to be.
The pencil eraser scrubbed out my yearning. Replaced it with hers.
It would be nearly twenty years later, in another classroom–this one filled with teenage writers I am teaching–that I would tell this story and realize, finally, that my teacher was wrong. My seven-year-old self knew, after all, exactly what I wanted: to write.
It’s New Year’s Eve, I am on the couch in the family room. The family is all gone. I am alone. Wondering: where along the way did I leave behind that child who knew the answers? I am waiting for the ball to drop. What will I do now? My husband of twenty-five years has wandered off with another woman. My kids are grown, gone. I have spent my whole life dreaming of being a writer, shoving the dream back into the drawers of my desk while I took care of other things, other people. I didn’t write any of it down.
I spent my whole youth saying I wanted to write. Always saying and never doing. I am not young anymore, but I am still saying I want to write.
Isn’t it time to shut my mouth and pick up the pencil?
I sit at the computer. I finish the short story I’ve been working on for years. The one called “Transcendental.” The one that shows me just how to transcend. I do not know then that no one will ever publish this story; but that turns out to be okay. The story, its completion, simply codifies into credo. Simply makes me happy.
Afterward, I snuggle into the sofa with a glass of Chianti and my journal. I am thinking of the story told by the children’s writer Patricia Reilly Giff that I heard at an English teachers’ conference. I am remembering how she said she became a writer by getting up one hour earlier each morning and writing before she went to school.
I could do that, I realize. Though I make some changes to make it really happen. Giff taught elementary school, which starts later than high school, which is where I teach. Still, I could manage half an hour, couldn’t I? I make the resolution. Seal it in ink. Close the journal.
The year turns. Vacation ends. School starts. I am in the car driving home from school. It is the first day of the new year. Bright and white. A familiar nagging pokes at me, reprimands: you should go home and work on that story. A second voice, clear as the sunlight on snow answers back: you don’t have to; you’ve already written today! The rush is so addictive my pre-dawn writing sessions take root, hold. Nothing much keeps me from my desk in the morning. At night I go to bed excited to wake up and write the next line.
The morning writing has resulted in the fact that my name is now on the cover of a book. I’ve signed copies, done readings. It’s great fun. Maybe this was what Mrs. Waltz/Mrs. Wood meant all those years ago about being an author, that it is, I suppose, a lifestyle.
But writing? Writing is life itself.
Ruth Ann Dandrea has taught English in upstate New York for more than thirty years. She has published short fiction in literary magazines and recently co-authored a book on women’s kayaking called Wow: Women on Water. When her students ask, why do we have to read, she tells them: reading will make you a better person. And when they ask, why do we have to write, she tells them that their writing will make the world a better place. This is what thirty years in the English classroom has taught her. And so she does. Read and write. She also paddles a kayak on quiet waters as often as she can.