08 June 2009

"You should write a book."

The year that I lived with my grandparents, age 8, I was given my first-ever weekly allowance. There really wouldn't have been any reason for me to get $1 a week back home in Queens, because I couldn't go shopping alone in the big city. But in Millinocket, Maine, I was free to walk from our house to the compact district known as "down street." I can still remember the sweaty feel of the dollar bill (or two, or three) that lay folded inside my pocket. The greeny scent that my hand carried when I brought it back upwards. And the planning, my thoughts of what-to-buy-this-time following the rhythmic pattern of my feet on the sidewalk.

At Newberry's, I'd become attached to series-type books like Trixie Belden, and I was always up for paper dolls or junk jewelry. I loved Barbies and coloring books and even office supplies (so I could pretend to be a secretary, like my mom). As I think back now, I can't recall when the seismic shift in my priorities took place...but there was, indeed, a climactic point in that third-grade year when it dawned on me that my life's ambition was to be an author. And immediately connected to that realization was a new use for my allowance money: now, I'd stride past Newberry's towards a pharmacy/stationer's called The Big L, because they had the best display of school supplies in town. Fingering the bills in my pocket, I'd deliberate in that aisle over binders, looseleaf, and pencils. The tools for this trade had to be just right. I craved the most inspiring blank piece of lined paper I could obtain, and I wanted the binder that encased it to be a heady combo of workmanlike and appealing. It had to feel right in my hands.

Once home, I would snap open the silver rings of the binder with care, slide the looseleaf sheets out of the plastic, and thread those three rings with the white poundage of possibility. And after this meticulous ceremony, I promise you, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I spent hours alone in my playroom writing, while hours flew past like a time-lapse film where the sun arcs over the house...morning, to day, to evening. My pencil penmanship on the lines smoothly conveyed my imagined stories, without much hesitation. Adult Nessa will tell you: that was magic.

Last weekend I was brought back to these third-grade reveries with a jolt. My kids wanted to stop at the B. Dalton bookstore, and I wandered in with them. They fanned out to their favorite spots, and I looked around aimlessly. Spreading before me, coming into collective focus, were piles and piles of remaindered, unwanted books...all colors and shapes, all topics and themes, all meticulously designed and hopeful. Some agent sold them, some editor bought them, and now some publishing house was whapping its forehead over the wastefulness of these paper-hogging tomes (if not dropping to its knees in the worst economy ever for the printed word). Of course, my heart sank for the writers who believed that people would eagerly read their stories, even as I experienced my familiar clanging jealousy that these authors got published. (Cue the moment where I berate myself for failing to achieve what I set out to do as a girl...the self-flagellation that ensues at every bookstore I enter.)

I lingered for a time at the young-adult section, the genre I settled upon decades ago as my writerly quarry. Twilight-inspired novels sprouted all over those shelves like some out-of-control black rosebush. Alongside the vamps and virgins, I spied another genre: books that centered on Internet chats, texting, and other clever communication devices of this age we live in. Not something I can imagine penning, even though I'm as much a net-izen as anyone. And I'm not a supernaturalist, either.

I veered away from YA, past manga abounding (my daughter's realm), and caught up with Willis reading a guidebook about insects. (He had seen a massive one the night before and was intently discerning what it was.) He sat bathed in a bright overhead light, and I sat next to him. I doubt he even recalls what I said--he was pretty engrossed in the insect manual--but I was overwhelmed, and had to voice what I was thinking to someone.

"Willis, I just realized..." My voice weakened, but then I said it. "When I was a little girl, you know, I decided I was going to write books someday. And just now, looking at all these books in this store that no one's gonna buy...you know, I have to accept...that is not going to happen."

He didn't say anything, but I went on. "People are always telling me, 'you should write a book,' and that's really wonderful of them, but there aren't ever going to be enough people who would want to read anything I'd write." There was this weird breathless feeling in my chest: part lifting of burden, and part airlessness left behind because I'd let go of something that had always felt so hopeful and pure and true. Oddly for me, I didn't cry. I just felt transformed, desolated.

I know my friends' intentions are supportive and honest when they say that I should write a book. I love them for it, and I wish I could believe what they believe. But adding to that sea of remainders...even being considered worthy enough to maybe join that sea of remainders...my childhood dream seems like a shedded carapace, and the me that has been inside it is tender, emerged, older and wiser.

I'm not saying I'll never be a writer...that's not my point. (I can't not write. It's breath to me.) It is my original childhood vision that has altered: that clutching of a book in my hands that has my name on the cover and my words arranged in orderly font, line after line, on an enviable thick block of pages. It feels yesterday, and wanting it hurts too much in the face of reality.