My Early Training As a Writer
(latest rendition of an oft-told tale)
I was six years old and early on Saturday mornings I’d cross the then sandlots of Long Island to my grandmother’s house. She was one quarter Sioux.
She’d let me into the sleeping house and make me pancakes the size of 50-cent pieces. We’d sit at the kitchen table together, me devouring pancakes drenched in maple syrup, my grandmother drinking black coffee and smoking. Then we’d go into the living room and sit on the couch and she’d read to me from one of her many enchanted children’s books, following the words with her slender bronze finger. This is how I learned to read.
Next we’d go back to the kitchen table and on the pages of a large drawing pad, in crayon, we’d drawn pictures of how our imaginations saw the places and characters we’d just read about. My grandmother would write the names of these places and characters in block letters on a lined pad, and I’d copy them onto the drawing pad in crayon under the appropriate image. This is how I learned to write.
Then a cat jumped out of a tree and knocked my grandmother to the ground and a blood clot killed her.
That fall I was enrolled in Catholic school. The nun was outraged by my atrocious penmanship, the fact I held the pencil in a fist, and the fact that that fist was my left fist. She beat the knuckles of my left hand until they bled, but I refused to take the pencil into my right hand, and, overwhelmed, she grabbed me by my hair and began banging me up and down in my seat until clumps of hair came out in her hands. She repeated some version of this behavior toward me on a regular basis, and when the first grade came to and end, I could no longer read and write.
I didn’t go back to Catholic school, and when I did start writing again several years later, the first thing I wrote was a poem.
These are the women who made me the writer I am today.