I have to admit that I’ve always had a little trouble with reality. Maybe that’s why I love to write, to immerse myself in a world of fantasy. Even when I’m writing a non-fiction piece (like the one you’re reading) I’m shaping the narrative into a story by choosing what to put in, and what to leave out. We can’t do that in real life!
But what really shaped me into a writer is a combination of things, including disappointments and loss.
I was fortunate to have parents who surrounded my brother and me with a rich library of children’s books when we were growing up. But neither my mother or my father saw any special talent in me, or any possibility of what I might become. No one was paying attention. Oddly enough, this worked in my favor. While my brother was busy collecting insects and butterflies for his growing collection, I was dreaming about escaping to the land of Oz. (My brother is now a happy and highly-successful entomologist.) But my day-dreams were productive, too. In them were the beginnings of stories I would one day write.
When I was seven we moved from our two-story colonial in Stamford, Connecticut to a small bungalow on a tiny, postage-stamp sized yard in Berkley, Michigan. I felt a deep sense of loss. I had loved our old neighborhood with its big shady backyards and uneven stone walls.
But there was a kind of beauty in the simple and unassuming suburb we moved to. Because it was so ordinary, Berkley was an ideal canvas on which to weave my dreams and fantasies. Where one green yard flows into another and the long summers are yours to fill anyway you want, one is free to do and imagine anything. Living in a place where I had to create the beauty, mystery and adventure for myself turned out to be an advantage.
When I was eight, something amazing happened. I discovered I had a gift for writing. With only a pencil and a spiral notebook from Kresge’s Five and Dime, I could create magic.
We were never asked or encouraged to write in school. Once again, no one was paying any attention. That could look like an oversight. But it was also freedom. I was having fun doing what I loved.
All these things went into making me a writer, and in particular the kind of writer I am. I’m grateful now that I had the freedom to daydream as a child, and that when I was seven we moved to what could have been a boring suburb if not for my imagination. And I’m glad we didn’t have writing programs in school when I was growing up. For most kids, such programs are overwhelmingly positive. But I needed to find my own odd and very individual way.
I told you I wasn’t very good at reality. What I am good at is creating a reality for others, through my writing. I still have fun doing it. And I am always surprised by the way children bring themselves and their own imaginations to the stories I’ve written.
And that’s the most fun of all.