In my Doris Day saturated adolescence, further soaked through with oily drenchings from Seventeen magazine, I gathered there would be nothing more important in my developing girl-life than Real Love. Although it was never spelled out, I dimly understood that Real Love was a vast, thudding uber-emotion, one that would arrive with a lot of unmistakeable noise and frantic celebration. Like a surprise party, I thought confusedly, as I leafed through the clueless pages of my girl ‘zines.
I sort of believed this, or at least I wanted to although Real Life stoutly refused to pony up anything like what I saw in the movies. No guy arrived, trundling a big cartload of romance behind him. However many dates I went on, or zippy formals I attended, I didn’t have that hoped-for magic moment where all the world stood still, blue birds twittered, and I knew…
And yet, although I was often ensnared and deluded, made blind and ruinous mistakes like so many girls, I did indeed encounter Real Love, not once but several times and every time I threw in all my chips. When Real Love glanced my way, then gave me the nod, I went gladly, even knowing that damage and sorrow would come too. No experience is pure, and even when stupidly young, I knew that much. I knew the costs.
Right now, I’m thinking of two of my Real Loves. There are more. I’ve been lucky that way. But here are two.
One time, many years ago, long married to my boy, I was in New Iberia Parish, Louisiana, staying at the Alice Plantation close to the Teche. I was awake in the early dawn for some reason, and wandered outside the guest cottage and stood by the pool nearby. A humid cloud hung over the pool itself, wisps of early mist caught and trailed in the big cyprus trees around me, and there was enough of a breeze that I could hear the cane rustle across the way. And then, at once, my throat closed, the way it often does just before I cry, and I remember thinking, My God, I love the South. I love this place like fire. I felt my knees turn watery, thought I might sink to the flagstones under me, and didn’t much mind. I knew I’d handed over my heart once more.
I wasn’t thinking of the Bayou Teche corridor, or the place we were staying or what we’d seen driving through Louisiana, the country drenched in green and gold. I meant I loved a place that was more than earth, knitted together over decades, handed to me in scraps. The bits I held made a whole soulful nation. My South stretches from Tennessee, winds through Virginia, then moves on to Texas, then to central and western Oklahoma. With those moves my ancestors made, that my family made, and that I’ve made too, lives were lived and stories boiled out of long-ago lives and buried bones.
And if the South is anything at all, it lives on in fiction that isn’t really fiction at all, but mortal scrapings blessedly salvaged. Some days I wonder if I have any real ability at all, or if it’s this fleshly love of place I have, moving me like the body’s nerves towards a high mountain of words, to search and discard, trying to choose only the best.
Still, before I knew the South, I knew writing: my first and earliest love. She’s a mysterious bitch with a black heart, always hard and elusive, forever enchanting. I learned about her writing my journals, kept them for many years, then quit for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I just wanted to write in a journal. Most decidedly, I didn’t want to journal.
Evidently, there was a moment when keeping a journal turned into journaling. Further, a troubling tendency in the culture began changing long-time respectable nouns into verb-forms. Giving a gift became gifting, committing suicide was now suiciding, and for all I know, selling Girl Scout cookies transmogrified into cookieing.
The innocuous journal listing, say, people met on a particular day, the memory a good meal, a description of the garden, or a musing on the seasons vanished. In its place was a gnarly description of internal weathers, and this was labeled journaling. In journaling, resentments were listed, self-castigation was analyzed, preferred outcomes were plotted, and recovery mantra’s were quoted.
Privately, I wondered if a literary consciousness had become manifest overnight and everyone was suddenly pounding out novels. After all, memory is the only novel everyone writes, composed from those recollections of the heart. Perhaps, in an odd evolutionary leap, a fiction-writing mind-set had gripped the population like a virus.
As for me, my journals just took hold, you might say, like an unquestioned habit. I was given a fat little daily diary at a young age. Once I quit thinking this was just another unfair drudgery foisted on me, I finished it and began my next one, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that. I scribbled in in my diaries for a hodge-podge of reasons, the largest one being loneliness.
When I lived at home, no adults were particularly interested in talking to me or discovering in what I thought. I put that down to the times–the ’50’s–when children were viewed in the same fashion as plants. Parents examined you periodically to make sure you looked like the other plants, didn’t show any rot on your roots, or exhibit a rebellious tendency to hang out with bad weeds. It was never thought that a kid might have a singular point of view…that most interesting human trait.
But I kept writing everything down in a variety of books…copybooks, accounting books, school theme books…and then I would set them aside, rarely going back to re-read them. Later I enrolled in art school, then became a painting graduate, and finally a professional artist. During this time I kept sketchbooks–always the same type–a black hardbound book. After drawing and sketching in the front of it, I would turn it upside down and write in the back. When the drawings and the writing met in the book’s middle, like two opposing armies, I’d put it aside and buy another.
Would it amaze you that I have no idea what I wrote about? I simply wrote. At too young an age, I had the good luck to marry a man who rarely talked to me and, in truth, bored me silly. On one day or another, my boredom threw me back on myself and I began, once again, to write. Perhaps I was writing things I wanted to say to someone, perhaps, once more, I was bitterly lonely. I don’t know. But this is how I met the cosmic and patient ear all writers first whisper into.
Keeping my journals, I became aware I could not help writing. Writing things down was an atmosphere I moved in easily–a bug in the air. It still did not occur to me that I was a writer. I just wrote, and from long habit, I wrote secretly, sensing how much I loved just the act of forming words on paper, the feel of the paper, the whisk of my pen across it. I suppose I had a mild case ofgraphomania, a condition that impells the practitioner to write down everything: Tonight I fried chicken for supper, but ran out of bacon grease and had to go next door… In far-gone cases, such people cover the walls of their houses with moment-moment accountings.
I stopped writing in my journals for good once I became a professional writer. As a painter friend of mine remarked, doing private art is very different from public art. I know what he means: other forces are in play. Suddenly my journal-keeping seemed embarassingly self-indulgent…internal squawkings that went nowhere. But then, going somewhere is not the point of a journal, and it is very much the point of a short story, a novel, or even an advertisement.
Professional writing is aimed like a gun at real people. It is no longer scribbled just for the invisible ear of God although, as I write, in the deepest part of me, I still believe He listens.