Sunday, October 21, 2012

the louvered door

Comparing notes with other writers is always a source of inspiration. Lately, we've been sharing our earliest recollection of writing and our first self-identification as "writer". I'd never really given the topic any thought, but I laughed when I realized that there WAS an actual beginning for me. And it's all thanks to my Mom.

My Mom was distracted, to put it mildly, when I reached my pre-teen years. She was newly divorced and was, no doubt, reeling from huge changes in her life. We had been a family of six, but in the course of a 12 month period, my oldest brother went off to college, my father moved out of the house and the next fall my oldest sister left for college as well. Then, Mom relocated me (age 9), my sister (age 10) and herself from Massachusetts to Georgia.

And there we were - all trying to recover from the shock of the multiple changes in our lives. My sister's reaction was mostly internal. But I managed to find a group of hoodlums to hang out with and at around the age of 12 began a multi-year effort to put myself in the most dangerous possible positions. This included associating with members of the Hell's Angels, going to late night parties after I was supposedly in bed, hitch-hiking all across the country and some experimentation with drugs. Today, I consider it a miracle that I made it through that portion of my life without having been raped or murdered.

But this post is not about those years. (Maybe later.)

Just prior to starting the 10th grade, Mom relocated us again, this time to rural North Carolina. And once again, I had to find a new group of friends. Although I had put my most dangerous behavior behind me at this point, I still hung out with "hippies". I played guitar and sang in a local rock band, I still smoked pot and I was still fearless, which at 15 should read DUMB. And, like most teenage girls, I kept a diary, in which I recorded my most secret thoughts, which included excruciating details of the moods and dialogue of whatever boy I was admiring at the moment. I kept that diary in a box, under some shirts, in the bottom drawer of my dresser.

I frequently played hookey from high school, sometimes to hang out with friends, sometimes just to hang out by myself at home. To say that I did not fit in at my rural high school was putting it mildly.  At that point I was pretty worldly, having seen and done far more than your average 15 year old. Add to that the ingrained racial segregation at the high school and it made for some unpleasant social experiences. I truly did not want to be there on any day.

One day, I stayed home from school and was sitting in my room playing guitar and singing. I heard a car in the driveway, hopped up to peek out the window and was shocked to see my Mom walking up the sidewalk towards the front door. I panicked and quickly made a decision to hide in my bedroom closet. I got the folding, louvered doors shut just in time. I was squatting in the most uncomfortable position you can imagine. I could just see out through the louvers. To my absolute horror, Mom walked straight to my room, opened the bottom drawer of my dresser, pushed the clothes back, opened the box and removed my diary.

She sat on my bed, flipped through some pages and began to read. It occurred to me that the turning of the pages was to pass the parts that she had already read. She had done this many times, I realized. I sat in furious silence as she read my most private thoughts. My brain whirled. What had I written? What was she now reading? I honestly could not remember.

Eventually, Mom closed the diary, returned it to the box, rearranged the clothes on top of the box and closed the dresser drawer. And, as quickly as she had arrived, she left, her heels briskly clip-clopping back down the walkway to her car. I painfully removed myself from that closet and snatched my diary out of its hiding place to read the whole thing from beginning to end. As I read certain passages, I felt psychic pain at the thought that Mom had read what I had written. I actually gasped and groaned  as I read.

For days after this event, I wrote nothing in that diary - not one word. On Sunday, as fate would have it, the Dear Abby column featured a young girl asking Abby whether it was right for her mother to read her diary, as she had caught her doing. Abby responded that parents should respect the privacy of their children and that her mother was very wrong to violate her privacy by reading her diary. I actually read the whole thing aloud to Mom at breakfast, then looked straight into her eyes and said, "I'm so glad that I have a mother who would NEVER do that to me." Mom did not even blink. That made me even madder!

So I began my campaign of revenge. Into that diary, I began to spin the wildest of tales. I wrote of possibly joining the carnival after meeting "Tim", a carny. I wrote of an opportunity to move to California to study with a swami. I detailed entire conversations that never took place. I described events that had never happened, usually involving jumping off of bridges or balancing on things that could lead to death if I fell. I wrote about shooting guns and learning to fight with a knife. I wrote about males that I had met who clearly wanted to do things to me and with me. These descriptions I would leave open, with a "should I?" ending.

This was the beginning of my creative writing. I wrote for the sole purpose of freaking my Mom out. I remember sitting and thinking, trying to come up with something suitably outrageous. And I would design my words for maximum shock value. It gave me great pleasure to come up with something really good. I would grin and laugh as I scribbled away. And that is the writing process, in a nutshell - trying to think of something really creative and writing it for reader response. The excitement of reading something you've written - and knowing you got it right - is really why we do what we do.

I have no idea if she ever read a word of it. Maybe I showed my hand with the Dear Abby column and she never did it again. Or, maybe she was smart enough to add the two things together and figure out that I was embellishing. Who knows? But it got me writing, which I have continued to do my entire life.

Interestingly enough, my views on the right to privacy changed when my own son started middle school and began to rebel. I told him flat out that it was MY house and that he could expect ZERO privacy. I told him I would be searching his room regularly, that I would read every word that I found and that I would confiscate anything and everything I found in the house that I decided he should not have. I have absolutely no qualms about this approach and highly recommend it as a parenting technique. After all, you need to know whether your child has plans to run off to California with a swami. This will allow you time to register him for band camp in order to circumvent his plans. A trumpet is an excellent diversion from California swamis and other potential distractions for teenagers. You can trust me on this.

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