Page 4 of Room to Write asks us to describe the first incident in which we were affected profoundly by words. In describing this, we should address what led up to the encounter, our physical reaction to it, and anything else that was happening simultaneously. We’re free to fill in the gaps with fiction, if we please, and perhaps construct it as a poem. I’m going for prose, but you do what you will.
I can’t swear that it was the first time words ever profoundly affected me, just that it’s the earliest memory that my pea-brain can pinpoint right now. It’s arguable, after all, that I was first profoundly affected when I first learned how to read, but I don’t recall there ever being a “Eureka!” swell of emotion then; it’s more so the appreciation that I can attach to it now in retrospect. I think of the metallic-spined Golden Books that kicked off my reading career, and my red paperback of The Story of Ferdinand that certainly made its place in my heart–but, again, a meaning established in my adult years when I so needed to hear truths put simply in my ever-increasingly complicated world. And I wish I could remember the first orally articulated words that may have moved me, but I think it would have to be when I myself took on the challenge of words, the composition of them in forms of my own choosing if not creation, that stands out as most pivotal to the writing life I’ve embarked on since.
I think it was fourth grade when I submitted my first “book” into the running for my elementary school’s Young Authors Contest. It was an anthology, actually, a collection of poetry that I carefully entitled, Poems of Modern Style. I suppose I classified them as “modern” based on the youthful and pop cultural content they covered (the ’80s punk aesthetic being a component) as well as the fact that I did, with the exception of a few haikus, create my own poetic structures to follow. It’s difficult to recall what exactly led up to these choices; I can only assume I chose the poetic medium because I couldn’t think of a plot around which to develop a decent story of any length (not to mention I’d probably noted the failure of my previous year’s prose piece, something about a lost bunny or puppy trying to find its way home. The dialogue was painfully monotonous; I clearly knew nothing of dialogue tags at age 7). So I suppose I had a range of miscellaneous ideas floating through my head that did not necessarily follow a cohesive theme, yet could adequately be dumped under that catch-all descriptor of “modern.”
The poetic form gave me the freedom to explore all these ideas in flowing form or fragmented sketches. Yes, I was 8 years old and an avid Shel Silverstein reader that was of the school of thought that all poems had to rhyme, so constrained myself in this respect, but it was rules like rhyming or the number of syllables measured in those haikus that really did prompt me to stretch and squish and swap words to comply with those forms without sacrificing meaning. That would be, then, when I caught the first glimmer of understanding how word-rich the English language is, that there are so many degrees of meaning even among synonyms that we are at liberty to play around with all sorts of words in trying to find the specific ones that truly convey what we’re seeking to say, whether in isolation or combination. Poetry forced me to think more deliberately, weigh each word’s worth more when there were so few alloted to a line and so few lines beyond that. Sure, I certainly remember cranking a couple of those out, feeling satisfied enough on the first try and ready to move on, but there were others that taught me the value of revision and being a discerning reader of my own writing. I further recall that I had drawn illustrations to accompany each poem, demonstrating that interplay between word and image and how they create meaning in synergy…or maybe it was also because I loved to draw and thought it made the pages pretty. (It did.) I painstakingly copied the final versions down onto construction paper of alternating rainbow colors and bound it all together to submit for the judging.
This process acquainted me with the eye-strain and sore hand muscles that accompany writing, but also with how these symptoms of pain were salved by the flutter in my stomach that signaled both the thrill of creative achievement and the anxiety over what others may think once I placed my baby in their arms. And even the agony of anxiety was utterly diminished when they announced the results: I was a finalist. I didn’t end up winning, but I had made the top four, and that was the first external recognition I’d received of my words that wasn’t just a grade on an essay. Perhaps I shouldn’t have relied on outside reinforcement, but it was the validating boost this shy girl needed to affirm that what I’d worked so hard on and genuinely enjoyed all by myself was something of merit that others could enjoy too. In the short-term, it inspired me to tackle an illustrated “novella” as a sixth-grader two years later for that same contest (I won, even got to go “on tour” reading select chapters in different classrooms) and cemented a love affair with words that will stay with me for a lifetime.