A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
As long as I can remember the words of others have lived inside me. Sometimes the cadences of a poem, like the Dickinson one above, start thrumming in my brain. If I am lucky, images and sounds begin to form, born of the original words, but setting forth in a new direction. I am a thief, hi-jacking other writers and riding away in their vehicles.
Here are some words I stole from a friend: “They got the color wrong.” I don’t remember now what she was referring to, but to me the words conjured up a teenager in a funeral home, inspecting a bad make-up job on her dead teacher. I heard the girl’s voice coolly analyzing the teacher’s embalmed face, and I could see her, wearing a black skirt and white blouse donned especially for the funeral. The girl’s name was Valerie Martin, she wanted to be a cosmetologist, and, luckily, she liked to write in a journal. From the pages of her journal other characters took shape. One was that deceased teacher, Bertha Trombetta, an embittered woman who was able to wreak havoc from the grave by attempting to blow the whistle on a school testing scam. Trombetta’s vindictive act impacted more characters, especially her fellow teacher, Charlotte Murphy, who was stagnating in a chilly marriage.
I read a memoir about a father who wore a blue brocade robe. A blue brocade robe? I knew I had to borrow that robe for Charlotte’s unfaithful husband, a man madly in love with himself. But I needed plot and structure. Back to burglary. I turned to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, put her plot points into a modern setting, and -voila! A whole novel – Ms. Murphy’s Makeover – emerged from just a few stolen words and the image of a blue brocade robe.
Perhaps I write because I can. I am not good at sports, puzzles, or games. My sense of direction is non-existent. But I am good at words. It is a gift my mother gave me. On her lap I learned about Peter Rabbit, and Babar the elephant, and Heidi and the grandfather on the mountain. As a preschooler I sat there, fighting sleep, begging my mother to read the books over and over again. I couldn’t wait to learn to read myself. And from reading and day-dreaming the writing came. I loved writing compositions. I spewed them out fast and faster – readers of Madeline will recognize Miss Clavel here – stealing phrases, whole plots, character traits, settings, everything, from the books I’d read. I wrote sequels to novels, imagining the characters in new situations. I re-wrote television shows, turned them into plays and fables, transforming animals to people and people to animals. I got lots of attention from this, lots of praise, and when we are praised we practice and when we practice we get better. Nothing succeeds like success. (I stole that.)
So is that then, why I write? I am not sure. I can only say that, on the eve of a big birthday, the driver of an empty school bus ran a red light and hit my car. I was lucky that day, so lucky, in that although my car was totaled I emerged without a scratch. It was close, though. I almost didn’t make the birthday. I could easily have been killed. At that point in my life, I was not writing. I was totally immersed in supporting the lives of my husband and children. But although this was my chosen path, I had a surprising reaction. “Not enough!” I said. The full and happy life I had was not enough. I wanted more. What did I want, I asked myself. And from deep inside the answer came. I wanted to write.
And that is what I have been doing ever since. I listen for the words of others, shelter them inside myself, and, as with Emily Dickinson, the words begin to live that day. And that is why I write. You might try it yourself. Why not steal this? “They got the color wrong.”
Jacqueline Grandsire Goldstein, a Chappaqua resident, has been studying at the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College.