A Small Coming Of Age, Written
By: Isabella Nilsson
I’ve been trying my whole life to get a handle or a grip on this thing called writing, but I’ve never really managed it. I had always thought that the gift of giftedness would come at once and suddenly—like a package or parcel decreed to me by some higher power. I was talented and at some point in the far off distance of my future that talent would be handed to me. Preferably (certainly) on some silver platter.
I hadn’t realized that I could never realize anything beyond the small foundations of my own small talent if I did not work.
When I was four or five my mother took me to see her friend, the poetry critic Helen Vendler, and I told her that I “was a poet and didn’t even know it.” This, by all accounts, she found delightful. A step forward.
I am sixteen. Fifteen years from now I will be thirty, and a hundred years from then I will probably be dead. Sometimes the thought of this leaves me agonized—not because I have to die but because I feel like learning how to write is like chipping away at marble made of words to reveal a statue carved of them, and how will I ever find my statue in a hundred years if even now I have no idea how to handle even the chisel?
I was seven or eight and I wrote about robots and the way they could be happy every day repeating the same hopes and thoughts in their heads like a thudding assembly line of feeling, and how I wished I could be that way. Ch-chhk love, ch–whirr hate —the regularity and inevitability of such emotions rendered them harmless. I was trying to write about escape but I didn’t have the words for it then.
I was ten and writing about a boy escaping from a crowded dock because I thought fiction meant boys of eleven and tricornered hats and crowded docks and my metaphors slammed into each other like two trains leaping off the tracks and into failure—heavy and clumsy and wrong, the vowels and consonants of the words crammed, jammed, slapping each other as I tried to make them beautiful. “Crimson” eyes stared into “sapphire” ones. Lashes “fluttered.”
It is difficult for me to read now because I recognize within it such an honest expression of feeling combined with a total inability to express it—-the thought that I was a child with such a massive gap between the ideal of my art and my own clumsy, yearning, almost pantingly genuine attempts to reach it, causes me a kind of physical pain, a shock between the eyes and in my chest, a full recognition of the emptiness of a life without words to define it. Even now the feeling of having the perfect word on the tip of your tongue, of knowing the key to a perfect understanding and articulation of a situation or concept or world but not having it there, having it hide somewhere in the depths of your head but being unable to find it—it infuriates me as nothing does. The nothing infuriates me.
This is probably such a terrible feeling because it makes me feel as though I am regressing. I know how it feels to be voiceless.
In seventh grade I worked.
I was a painfully awkward child and in my school-sanctioned solace of writing a novel. I found a bright spot away from my own burning tweenage frustration behind the unlikely desk of a math teacher who would never teach me, a Dr. Glen Looman. I was twelve and writing about adults and adult things with a kind of shy seriousness it would be easy to laugh at. Instead he treated me like one of the adults I was writing about, but with more gentleness. I would write every day, and every week or so he would edit it all, from the beginning. Tens of drafts and thousands of pages marked with ink, blue. Thousands of pages marked with blue ink and sanctified, legitimized with two people’s eyes and marked over again with ink, black (my own) and, again, edited. I can still remember the feel of the pages out of the printer, dawning full-formed and sticky. My fingers burned. I smudged the ink. Eventually there was a day when it rose hot and finished and fat, full of the thousands of words that I knew more intimately than I could ever know anything else, knew through all the twists and turns of revisions and revisions revisited—and I felt so full of pride I thought the place inside of me once full with the emptiness of the inexpressible (not the inexpressible, but the inability to express, itself) would burst.
After my clumsy, beaming presentation on this thing I had written, Dr. Looman emailed me to congratulate me on the achievement that could not have been achieved at all without him. He said that he looked forward someday to “relaxing on an island in the Bahamas, retired, reading your bestseller, and saying ‘yes, I knew her once’.” Dr. Looman saying things like this to me is what made his diagnosis of cancer so unfair. Here the clichés that I used when I was eight and hate when I am sixteen are unavoidable—there is no need to avoid saying the word that would best fit in order to maintain some kind of elevated emotionally distancing perspective of aesthetics and self-protecting irony. It is selfish.
In ninth grade I was told that the one person who had never condescended to or hurt me in regard to my writing was dying young and for no reason, and in that moment the only way you could describe my heart—I admit it—would be to say that it was breaking. I wrote him a letter, but he never wrote back. I hope I wasn’t too late.
A classmate heard my speech and told me her grandfather was a big editor and to send the manuscript to him. He never wrote back either. I think a lesson that a girl needs to learn early is how to find closure in things that are unclose-able, how to look straight in the face of some big deep black closet of unknowing and uncertain and turn around and firmly close the door behind her. I will never know if I was too late. Maybe I was too late when I was four and said I was a poet. Maybe I needed to pick up the chisel earlier, before I was born even. I feel again, the pressure of it—the tunnel vision of this narrowing in of time. I have so much to say and so few words and hours with which to say it. How can I construct for you a castle cut out of sentences when I feel as if I can barely string together air?
Steps forward. In order to be a writer you need to work, and sometimes that can mean more than just writing. Sometimes the work occurs inside of you and stays there for a while before the thick of it pours out like tender honey, aged, onto a page or a computer screen. Sometimes the real work is just experiencing things so that one day you can write about them.
When I was sixteen—I am sixteen but I am also eight and thirty and inevitable senility, incapable of developed thought, incapable of any carving, figurative, universal, looming ahead of me—I wrote again about adults, except that somehow as I went along the blueprint of an adult from which I copied was beginning to be found, not in books or movies, but inside of myself. I started to stop pantomiming feelings from art created by people older than I was because I didn’t need to—the feelings were somehow there somehow already, unbidden, original, edenic, whole. I quickly became infatuated with these new inner depths. So this was what being grown up was like, I thought, wanting to throw yourself out the window all the time. But also wanting to dance when you hit the bottom.
I have a teacher. I like to think he’s showing me the way. He tells me that writing is about sitting at the computer with a tall cup of black coffee and a stopwatch every morning. But I also think it is about staring your own inability to ever truly reach perfection of communication in the face—to ever truly take what is in your heart and, with the help of these few small words we have been given, bring it out into the light. Becoming a writer is about knowing all this and trying anyways. Knowing that your statue will be perpetually unfinished and still bravely picking up the chisel, staring with faith and imagination and courage and, yes, dedication—into the dark without closure and the light without self defenses and somewhere, off into the distance of impossibilities and life-shattering sentences and literary giants—at the perfection you will strive for but never reach until the day you die.
I’ve been left and left and hurt and loved and left again. I’ve been right handed and left handed and a vegetarian and a brutalist and so happy I could cry and so depressed that the emptiness of the inarticulacy inside of me felt like a stone in the pit of my gut that I could heave into a river and let my body follow as if pulled by string, let myself be swallowed by absolute dumbness and death and gray. I don’t want to be left again. But there is some small selfish part of me that does want to write about it. Hopefully one day I can write in a way that feels less like a bad internet translation—less like a radio transmission full of static that the reader is forced to decode. I want to be able to pluck words out of my head and tape them down inside of anyone happening by until the picture in my brain and the unnamable unknowable feelings in my heart are in theirs too, exact, unharmed, whole. I want to learn—not just how to transmit—I want to learn how to write. And I want it to be beautiful.