I am coming to the end of the book tour for Picture This and this question has come up at every stop. The answer is never easy, because surely I wrote all my life, once as a freelance journalist in a small town in New Mexico, numerous times as a newsletter editor, and I worked the daylights out of many journals. But when did I really start to write? Twenty years ago, in a cabin in California.
A young English professor had just moved in with a scientist and she had filled the cabin with earnest souls who wanted to write. She used Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones, as a way to get us started. In attendance were geography professors, a mathematician, a few psychologists (like me) and a smattering of people from the English department. She gave us a prompt and told us to write for fifteen minutes.
Without hesitation, I wrote about a braided rug, a five year-old me, and the night my mother took me to see a newly born goat in the middle of the night. Suddenly I felt everything that I had never articulated about that moment; sitting cross-legged on the rug braided by my Swedish grandmother, my mother coming through the door with spring snow on her red hair, the bloody warmth of the goat shed, the golden light, the surprise of my mother seeking me out to share the moment, the rough wool of her coat as she held me up so that I could see the white goat in the hay, and the mother still licking him clean. I was filled with the feeling of both child and newly born goat, both of our mothers tending to us, with the difference between us as thin as the membrane that the mother goat licked with her rough tongue.
When it came time to read our bits of writing, I thought my heart would burst through my ribs, the entire inside of my body vibrated and my voice quivered. I thought the entire world would split open if I read aloud. And in a shocking way, the world did split open, letting me become more fully human as I found a way to write. That was the night that I started truly writing.