I came down with the flu. After weeks of dragging myself to the computer, I finally listened to the doctor and let myself be sick. One afternoon I pulled out my old journals. I haven’t kept a journal in the last few years, instead a planner dictates my days. My composition notebooks are a mishmash of thoughts, memories, observations, scribblings on books in progress, and notes from writer’s conferences. I’ve never been a dedicated diary keeper, but carrying around a handmade journal felt less like “being a writer” and more like staying in touch with the world.
Back then, I didn’t frequent Starbucks or museums or university libraries. My observations were made in diners where the first course for the special is cole slaw with Saltines, in general stores that carry weekly newspapers reporting a man was shot and became dead, and along back roads where people live in abandoned gas stations. I captured scenes like this:
In Goodwill today, a mother and daughter came in talking sixty to the minute. Naturally I eavesdropped. Mother: Look, they got Dale Earnhart glasses. Daughter: No, I seen ‘em before. I remembered shopping trips with my mother and sister, how we’d “find” stuff for each other.
The daughter was ahead of me in the check-out line. One of her items, a NASCAR throw, wasn’t priced. Her mother—a large woman in an ill-fitting dress—squeezed past me to stand behind her daughter. “Pardon me, sweetie,” she said. The clerk allowed the NASCAR throw was $14.99. Too much, the daughter said and paid for her other things.
Her mother set down two glasses, the Dale Earnhart ones. She pulled two dollars folded into tiny squares from her wallet. I wondered if she purchased the Earnhart glasses for her daughter, knowing she wanted them but didn’t have enough money. She thanked me again for letting her cut in front. The women talked all the way out the door. I wondered where they were headed next. I longed to go with them.
I know families like that. They’re everywhere, but most of us living our busy, forward-focused lives don’t notice the margin-dwellers. I see them because I once existed on the periphery. Deep inside, I still do. People at the ragged edge will give you their time and anything else, even if they can’t spare it. When they speak, in what Anne Tyler calls “pure metaphor,” I come home.
Reading my journals made me wonder where I’ve been lately and why my recent work feels so … safe. I was once on track to tell the stories of kids who have fallen through the cracks. Not in a poor-me-we-live-in-a-trailer-and-Daddy-chews-Red-Man way, but with dignity and even humor. After several failed attempts, I quit because I knew the stories I wanted to write would hardly be a top pick in an editor’s inbox.
Oct. 3, 2014: Some days—weeks—it feels as if I haven’t written a word. Not my words. I’m reminded how much I want to say, how little time I have to do it.
So I stopped keeping a journal. Stopped driving down back roads to get lost on purpose. Worse, I faced forward and ignored the edges where the lovely, important things are.
I found advice from Jack Gantos’s opening speech at the 2014 SCBWI Mid-winter conference. The slide on the screen showed the cover of his Newbery award-winner, Dead End in Norvelt, with the title written on a road sign and a boy standing behind it.
Feb. 22: “Always go behind the sign,” Gantos said. “It’s where the real stories are.” I already do that.
When I finished reading, I stacked the notebooks, reluctant to put them back on the dusty shelf. If I did, I’d bury a treasure trove of stories, sketches, places, names, scenes, and rare glimpses of my own true self. I moved them to the bedroom to dip into, hoping my dreams will urge me to record once more the soft cadence of forgotten voices.
I’m the only one standing in the way. No one will beg me to tell the stories I’ve already shot and declared dead without writing a syllable, hearing an editor say, No, I have seen this before. It’s up to me to find the edges, to unfold the tiny, tight squares of my confidence. To get lost on purpose and slip behind the sign. To see what I’m really part of.