BEYOND WORDS, WORLDS,
If this essay were a movie, we would view a leisurely pan of constellations on night sky, leap into the sparkling void, and turn toward the orb of the earth, dabbed with regional clouds above the United States, and zoom in at such speed we would be flung into the past—all the way back to the 1960s in Lionville, PA, and a housing development amidst farms where horse manure, spread as fertilizer on the field up the hill, spiced the summer air around childhood play, and through a window in a split-level house to a girl lying on her bed reading until the sun went down. By age ten, I had become an avid reader—I loved Edgar Rice Burroughs and the aroma of Dover Publications’ paper and binding, which masked the fertilizer stench if I held the book close to my face (a must for nearsighted eyes)—discovered Jane Eyre, and wondered if I could ever transport people to other worlds through writing.
A few years later, at Downingtown High School, I wrote my first short story as a response to a choice of picture prompts. Immersing myself in a centuries-old woodcut print of people incarcerated in an asylum, I wrote in first person about patients suffering in agony from various mental and physical disabilities, horrible delusions, wrongful incarceration, and the cruelty of their caretakers. The woodcut was minimalist but suggestive, and a plethora of details surged to mind. Fifty years later, although my handwritten-in-cursive story has disappeared with the lint of time, I can still recall the last line: “And that’s how I got here, St. Peter.” (Which I thought very clever.) A few days after the assignment was due, the teacher announced that one of the stories was exceptional, and she would read it aloud to the class. I loved that teacher, Miss Fletcher.
We switch from film media to still photos here. Note the prim, proper, and pleasing image of Miss Fletcher, with her 1950s pageboy hairdo, cardigan, crisp white blouse, below-the-knee skirt, and brown loafers with shiny Lincoln pennies and leather fringe. She was by nature calm, gentle, and encouraging, and she endeared herself to me further by reading my story to the class, which crystallized my dream of writing.
When I was 16, The Philadelphia Bulletin, Sunday Magazine section, published my first poem for 1 cent per line. Sixteen cents! Naturally, I anticipated writing the great American novel by age 25. But it took decades for me to perceive the last line of my first short story as more of a cop-out than a clever, fully realized O. Henry ending, for example. So what happened? Life. The life I needed to experience in order to write with credibility, even if the genre were fantasy.
Return to movie mode here and fast forward past many stories written mid-teens—some of which I still have on onion skin paper with fading ink from my first two-tone blue Royal typewriter—for the English Department at Penn State, which offered two programs. (I should mention that was after I tried majoring in pre-veterinary medicine, like so many girls who loved dogs and never got a horse for her birthday, and failed miserably.) I double-majored in English—the Language and Literature program and the Writing and Editing program—and graduated with a B.A. and a full half of my college credits in those programs. College curricula are rarely structured that way today, so I was fortunate.
Zoom into the future and freeze frame on the publishing company, Prentice-Hall, Inc., NJ, where I landed my first job—as a production editor in the College Division, starting in the proofreading pool. Little did I know that my great fortune at finding employment only a month after college graduation typecast me like an actor—and it eventually felt more like a double brand with a cattle iron—because I started (1) in college textbooks, and (2) on “hard side,” the jargon for engineering and technical texts. I might as well have been blacklisted; no publisher would consider me for a position in Trade Books, which is where I wanted to be, or even in the “soft side” (English and liberal arts texts) of a College Division. Pleased to have a job at all, however, as well as one dealing with the written word (even if it was e = mc2), I became a workaholic and worked my way up the ladder to Supervisory Editor and then (new freeze frame) across the Hudson River to the Big Apple and Managing Editor at Macmillan Publishing Company —at 53rd and Third, around the corner from the slant-roofed Citicorp building and nine blocks northwest of the United Nations. To my mid-30s mind, I had “arrived.”
Zoom into the future again to marriage and pregnancy, when I quit in-house staff work to stay home and raise my daughter—the joy of my life, then, now, and always. While she slept (and she was fairly catatonic for her first 18 months), I started a freelance book production business, which lasted 10 years, or a quarter century depending on the on-again/off-again nature of it. The upshot? I read no books (except for Goodnight Moon and the like, aloud for my daughter) and wrote no fiction in all those years. Sad but true—as a workaholic who read and edited for 60 hours per week, I sought anything other than reading or writing as entertainment. And one day, while copyediting an arcane manuscript on Dutch shipping in the 1600s for a university press, I cried out, fearful my brain would implode, “UNCLE, please save me from myself.” Editing, so close to writing, was not nearly close enough to the writing I wanted to do, and I needed a reason for being in addition to motherhood.
That would be the corner between a rock and a hard place, and I knew something must change. Instead of trying to change my profession, I recorded (between Pamper changes, naps, and editing) the visual images of my soundless meditations over a 5-year period. Revisions and thematic reorganization of the originally chronological meditations brought me great pleasure, and I titled the resulting chronicle, Beyond Words: Journey of the Spirit, Spirit of the Journey. After that labor of love, I sought feedback at church from my trusted spiritual advisor, who was dubbed Elkdreamer by a Native American holy man he mysteriously met in a remote cave hours into some New Mexico desert (I suspect peyote was involved). In any case, Elkdreamer read my chronicle and to my utter delight described it as “Lewis Carroll and Castaneda with a pinch of Vonnegut for seasoning.” Confidence led me to imagine fictionalizing the piece, whose characters (Woman, White Horse, Lion, and Jester) are reminiscent of those in The Wizard of Oz, and the result could have great potential as an intergenerational novel. To my dismay, writer’s block slammed me with horrific force, and I could conceive of myself as nothing more than a mother with wannabe writer ambitions. Which sounds horrendously negative—on the bright side, mothering my precious daughter provided a continuum of joy throughout the years and, not that I understood it at the time, intriguing plots for stories to come.
The film theme permits us to skip about two decades by doing just that, skipping them entirely, and bringing into focus me still permanently stifled in my writing (seemingly), and bored by empty days with my daughter away at college. I interpreted the silent meditations as a sign. Still quasi-editing for a living, I entered a part-time Interpreter for the Deaf Program at Union County College. After 2 years of learning and loving American Sign Language (ASL), it became clear that my strong command of and love for the English language blocked my ability to interpret, because I could think only in English, not in sign. Consequently, I transferred from the interpreting program to the ASL and Deaf Studies program and earned a certificate. I still enjoy the challenge of “translating” English poetry into ASL poetry.
During the ASL time frame, I also took a part-time course in C-Print® captioning, which combines software that converts phonetic code into English, fast typing on a laptop, and a captionist’s summarizing skills of a speaker’s meaning (a form of writing, I told myself, that demanded simultaneous use of both hemispheres of the brain, and which would hone my writing skills). Learning on the job—yes, I finally could change my profession—I provided real-time captioning and study-note transcripts for hard-of-hearing students in the classroom (middle school, high school, and college). I always felt badly that it took me 3 years to gain proficiency, yet it paid well, and I thrived on the fulfillment engendered by grateful students. After 8 years, I wearied of typing other people’s words. After another 4 years, my then student graduated, and I found myself jobless after 40 years of employment, with skills suddenly far too specialized for the employment market. As with other baby boomers, the 180° flip-flop in the professional-specialization trend booted me out into the cold. I had to resort to unemployment, which at the time I considered shameful but for which I will always be grateful.
The movie here paces itself with alternating glimpses of multiple events that overlap in time. First, I wanted to type my own words and decided to return to my roots, so to speak. To help me realize the dream, I entered the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. I cannot rave enough about the praiseworthy caliber and feedback of the mentors, all published authors, the program’s social dynamics with mentors and fellow students and the community we formed, and the instilled discipline of writing and revising. Within a few years, I published my first short story and then another and another, all without financial remuneration, which did not dampen my joy.
Second, to keep food on the table after my divorce, I took a part-time position with a college as a writing tutor, which helped grateful students with their writing as much as I gained from the experience and could bring to my own writing. Unfortunately, although the college required its tutors to have or be working toward an MFA or Master’s degree, the hourly rate of only $16 (WTF?) resulted in, surprise surprise, not enough food on the table.
Third, I considered becoming an adjunct professor at the college but rejected the idea because I could not think quickly on my feet. For example, if asked, “Who wrote The Scarlet Letter?” I’d probably respond: “Nathaniel Hawthorne? No, he wrote Silas Marner, so it must have been Erich Fromm. No, he wrote Freshman English. Or was the title, It All Started with Freshman English? No, that was a different author, George Eliot, I think—the one who wrote The Art of Loving. Or was it Ethan Frome? Or Edith Wharton? What was the question?”
Fourth, somewhere in those years I earned a Certificate of Eligibility, High School Teacher of English, which fell by the wayside with the idea of adjunct professorship.
Fifth, an arm of the unemployment agency paid for a 6-month course in web design. I enjoyed the work, but the software bugs made me nuts, which would be bearable, I determined, if I created websites only for authors. Two websites and 5 years later ….
Alas, even though I could wear numerous “different hats,” what with my skills in writing, editing, book production, teaching, tutoring, web design, and captioning—all of which revolve around the hub called word—I felt stymied every which way I turned.
Thank goodness for early retirement and 40 years of paying into Social Security. The film here alternates images of fireworks, champagne corks popping, smiling people giving each other “high fives,” mortar boards flung high into the air. Retirement—time to write! Right? Writer’s block slammed me again for 3 years, during which time I discovered that one cannot survive on Social Security. The movie flips briefly to interspersed frames of Homer Simpson spurting “Doh” and me babbling “Duh”!
Downsizing to a condo and planning to move again, this time to a state with lower property taxes, I am now 65 and officially a senior citizen on Medicare. A wise man once told me, “When you have way too much to do, that’s when to write.” And so, in the midst of the packing, moving, unpacking, remodeling residences, packing again to move again, and existential and aging crises, I finished revising my collection, The Fifth Eye, and published it with a top-notch independent publishing house. I now feel like a writer, an author, because I am one. I always was, but I kept getting in my own way and allowing self-sabotage, which I had perceived as fate, to throw me off course at countless junctures.
With that lesson learned, the film segues into a slow pan of rosy gold and magenta clouds tinting sky over evergreen trees on the bank of a river in early evening and reflecting like an impressionistic painting in the rippling waves. What lies over that treed horizon? After I settle in a new state (are you in the market for a condo?), near my daughter and her hubby, I will write for my soon-to-be first grandchild, a fictionalized version of my compiled soundless meditations in Beyond Words, penned about 22 years ago. Taking a tip from L. Frank Baum, I could fashion myself as a Dorothy (perhaps with different personae, such as Glinda the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch of the West), and other characters could (and do) simulate the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, and the Tin Man. As for the man behind the curtain, I do not consider the Wizard a humbug from Omaha, and I will probably veer from Baum’s plot and ending, but maybe I will not, because Beyond Words includes a Trickster (Jung style). In any case, who will my wizard be? And how might I portray the Winged Monkeys as good rather than evil, à la the Broadway musical Wicked? Ooh, so many questions inviting words onto the page. Perhaps the writing process and its addicting, titillating sparks of creation will provide the clues for my next book. (“My next book”—how savory those words taste on the tongue.) I look forward to discovering the story (amid hot flashes and grandchild Pamper changes) with all the rapture a writer can summon, which is vast given the myriad splendid moments in life that we all have lived, in one way or another.
ROISIN McLEAN's essay is her bio
[copyright 2017, Rosalie Herion)