For a long time I puzzled over how I managed to go from a hopeless screw-up in school to a hardworking, disciplined writer as an adult. After considering it for 50 years or so, I came to the realization that I had been a very hardworking little girl. In fact I was a workaholic, striving, in my 4-year-old way, to decipher the mysteries
of the universe and the meaning of life. What was real?
What was illusory?
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, it seemed as if nothing was real, that sunlight and houses and stop signs were pictures painted on a curtain. Behind the curtain was a black hole—nothingness. We kids weren’t supposed to know about the nothingness. Late at night, when we were asleep, the grown-ups touched up or repaired any wrinkles or tears in the curtain so that we wouldn’t suspect what lay behind the seamless surface. Even my consciousness, my essential being, might be part of the illusion. I lay in the dark, prickling with panic, praying for daylight and the sounds of activity and life to dispel the terrifying specter of nonexistence.
Then, in the middle of wrestling with these dilemmas—I admit I wasn’t making much progress—something terrible happened.
My parents sent me to kindergarten.
I felt hamstrung. This didn’t bode well for future academic achievement. And, sure enough, by third grade I was in the slow reading group. Though I loved to read, I hadn’t read the stories or answered the questions in the workbook. I didn’t want to answer those questions. I had too many of my own.
Numbers were even more infuriating, especially when concealed in story-problems about children going to the store to buy candy. Just when you were getting interested in the candy-store adventure, they yanked the narrative out from under you and presented you with a math problem involving money laundering.
I hated school so much that I took to heating up the thermometer on the radiator so my parents would think I had a temperature and let me stay home. This worked well, except for the time the thermometer registered 105 degrees and my mother took me to the emergency room.
Because no one talked about the ideas that absorbed me, and because I couldn’t begin to articulate them, I felt invisible, as though I didn’t exist. The more ignored and invisible I felt, the richer my interior life became. Standing on the beach during summer vacations, I imagined that I alone understood the secret language of waves as each one broke, breathing its brief tale before sinking back into oblivion. I might be flunking out of school, but in my inner life I reigned supreme—author of existence, teller of tales, master of tides. Through it all I was striving to transform reality, answer impossible questions, and create a story out of a big mess.
In other words, I was working to become a writer.