When I was ten, my kid sister caught me at it in the upstairs office.
“What’re you doin’?”
“Nothing! Go away!”
“What is that?”
“Nothing! Get out!”
“Oh, my god, are you reading… the dictionary?”
“Fuck off, and close the door!”
“I’m tellin’ Mom…”
I’m not sure if she reported me for that particular “fuck,” but oddly, she did mention the whole reading-the-dictionary thing at the table that night. Mom and Dad seemed benignly amused and a bit curious.
I was actually embarrassed. I assured them that the appeal wasn’t the plot.
And I tried to share the revelation: that words were so human; they had histories, families, secret lives, hidden meanings. And someone had thought to stick them all in one magic place, with their evolutions laid out like maps to travel? How bafflingly marvelous!
Ultimately, Mom and Dad seemed content that it wasn’t the worst thing for a kid to get up to.
The year I got busted reading reference books was also the year I started writing newspaper stories, carefully penciled out in editions of one, byline under the watchful eye of the bespectacled owl that sat at the top of my mother’s office stationery. I covered everything from the Iran hostage crisis and the attendant yellow ribbons that had sprung up in the community, to the Vaseline Intensive Care commercial that got filmed on the lawn of our local library and featured hundreds of our small town’s residents, including my grandmother.
I loved the reporting voice. Some of the context may have been a bit feigned (surely we can indulge a Google-less ten-year-old?) but the inspiration (in particular, the calming and authoritative tones of Tom Brokaw, with his Dakota dark “L” drawl, narrating the events of the day as we ate dinner) was genuine. My goal was not just to grasp the significance of these events, but to share in them. To bear witness.
I am quiet.
Writing is an amazing thing you can do, as a quiet person, so unlike the fraught, fluky, vaguely accidental feeling of speaking words out loud. There’s remove and connection all at once. How bafflingly marvelous. You and I aren’t together, we might even be very far apart, but I’ve had a thought, I’ve formed a series of curves and lines that we collectively agree represent that thought, and I’ve laid those curves and lines carefully down. I’ve pushed them to and fro, erased them, expanded them, ordered them, and re-ordered them. Gotten them exactly right, or as close as possible.
And when I share these precise curves and lines with you, you can read my thought, you can hear my voice, even though I haven’t said a word.
When I was eleven, my best friend and I had a fight, petty in the special way that’s reserved for pre-teen girls. It was my first real break-up. Bent on revenge, I started an epic self-insert fan fiction opus. Fucking Air Supply. Damn, I must have been the oldest eleven-year-old in history.
Over that year, it swelled to hundreds of fearless pages, filling handfuls of yellow-lined pads pinched from Dad’s convenience store. It even featured guest authors. It’s amazing the energetic appeal of meanness and anger, but fortunate that pubescent attentions are finite.
Not having any idea where those pages are now, I do dearly hope they’ve long since been destroyed.
My family have for years thought of me as loud, a rebel, always up for a fight, an argument, a debate. I think that came from the evolution of the Tom Brokaw-narrated evening meals. Writing as witnessing brought out in me a sense of there is a right and a wrong, a just and an unjust, and it’s odd not to say so.
So, Dad and I would debate the news of the day there at the dinner table, with little concern for literal or figurative heartburn. One evening, in the heat of it, I called him something like a crypto-fascist (this captures a bit of the spirit if not the actual term; after all, he was my father and I loved and respected him, and I also certainly hadn’t yet discovered William F. Buckley vs. Gore Vidal).
“I’ve been called worse by better,” Dad said, evenly.
“Oh, really?” I replied.
I was thinking, how on earth would anyone ever have anything bad enough to say about you to call you something worse?
I could see in his face, though, that he thought I was thinking, how on earth would there ever be anyone better?
I couldn’t think of what to say to correct him.
(See how dangerous speaking out loud is?)
What my family might not know even still: I was loud in the safe place that the four of us made, growing up together in the Maine woods. But there was never another place like that.
Every other place, I’m quiet.
Time marched on, and I left that safe place in the Maine woods, and went thousands of miles away.
I wanted to write. I had to write. Words would get stuck, like I was choking. Writing was the Heimlich that let me breathe again.
Words would crawl. Words would haunt. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep. Writing was the sleeping pill next to the bed at night that, with paper, pen, and flashlight called on then tucked back in, would let me finally drift off.
Words were a compulsion: an addiction.
I was writing with the attention span of a sneeze. So much of it on the backs of actual envelopes, or in the margins of shopping lists. If you weighed the output, it wouldn’t even swing the needle on the kitchen scale. A thousand little confetti Heimlichs and a sense of sadness that this skillful compulsion couldn’t belong to someone interesting, someone with drive, someone with something to say.
Alcohol is nestled right in the heart of this story, the viper you’re about to step on, right where it belongs, right where it should be. But you’re just not paying attention. The voice telling me I had nothing to say, I would eventually drown with alcohol; and oddly, eventually the voice telling me that was the voice of alcohol itself. The snake endlessly eating its own tail, an acute ouroboros.
I haven’t talked about my own alcohol use, which maybe is unfair. You should know, though, that John had a devoted alcoholic partner in me. I kept up with him, glass for glass, ounce for ounce, for a long time.
I kept up with him, right until I quit.
I had thought that when I quit was when I got quiet with him.
It wasn’t though. That had happened long ago.
I just hadn’t been paying attention.
When I first met John, one of the most appealing things about him was that he was a writer. He told me about the stage play he’d written with a friend of his (a friend who was also his pot dealer, who’d just gotten a DUI, so John was on-call driving him to the track where he called the horse races for broadcast). I have no idea where those pages are now, and don’t know if he does.
But I was completely in awe, eventually daring to share some of my tiny pieces. He told me something amazing, with such scant evidence: “You’re a better writer than I am.”
I was over the moon.
John decided we should write, together, the tale of the first human trip to Mars. Five Hundred Days. I still have the file of notes, article clippings, illustrations, that were meant to inspire and inform us. But by this time, he’d convinced me to go to school for astronomy and physics, and words had to give way to numbers, the verb now not is but equals. The switch required all my focus. And it required a distortion. Even as I went along, and could see where the increasingly-ill fit left drafty gaps, I kept moving.
I was a project. I was on a pedestal. Failure was not an option.
He was so proud of me.
Once we’d moved back east, we took our first trip to visit his mother. Early in the eight-hour drive, John warned me (hotly, I thought) not to get into politics during the visit. I was absolutely floored, trying to figure out what part of our past experience gave him the idea that I’d be shouting about my sexuality or the Iraq War to his deep-south, old-school mom. I mean, I’d already met his dad, been to his house, and read the entire Promise Keeper’s pamphlet he had tacked to the fridge, keeping my jaws wedged firmly closed behind a polite smile.
Did my own partner not know, not see, how much I kept quiet? Did he not understand it as a matter of training, of survival?
I burst into tears in the car, and he accused me of trying to manipulate him.
I realize now that, in our alcohol-tilted syntax, “out loud” [adverb: audible, spoken in order to be heard] had morphed into “too loud” [adjective: excessive in volume; strident]. Drawing the map of us out in words, such a thing pops hot and bright. How on earth could I have missed this? He spoke it out loud, after all.
(I am. I have always been. I thought it was safe with you, though.)
I’m scared of writing now. Isn’t that funny?
I don’t cry when I write. I’m drawing a map, from memory. It takes quiet, concentration. I don’t even cry when I read back what I’ve written to myself, focusing instead on how close the curves and lines come to accurate witness.
But I often cry when I read what I’ve written out loud, when someone else can hear me. It’s as if my voice, hoarse, underused, lives closer to the hurt of the story of my last real break-up, and the mapping, the symbolic rendering, the knowing the lay of the skewed logical lexicon, doesn’t offer cover.
I am still quiet.
But I’m writing as loud as I can.
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