In the last couple of weeks, I have been trying to get to the bottom of why I am struggling so much with my first book. I keep starting something, deciding that it is quite dreadful and throwing it away. I fret; I get completely blocked, and sometimes I have panic attacks just seeing the file labeled “Book.”
Today I discovered why I am having difficulty. It all started with a directed writing assignment: “Write about the worst reception that your writing has ever received or about a time when someone tried to crush your dreams of being a writer.”
It wasn’t until I was half way through the assignment that I realized something pretty important: I am not writing my first book. This is my second.
I wrote my first book when I was still in grade school. The year that I was in the third grade, I felt responsible when my mother had a crappy birthday. I vowed that the following year I would give her a present that would please and astound her so much that it would make up for everything. And so the very next day I began working on it.
My mother had told me that she wanted nothing more than for me to use every talent that I had to serve Jesus, even though I was still just a child. So I figured that I would write an entire book of religious poems for her, one every day that would demonstrate I was doing exactly what she wanted most.
My plan was to write a poem a day, so that at the end, I would have a small book of 365 poems all about Jesus and God and things that would make her happy. Of course, it ended up being closer to one poem every week or two. I hadn’t counted on how hard it would be to find unique ways to rhapsodize about God. By the end of the year, however, I had a respectable collection of more than thirty poems. Not bad for a little kid.
I cannot remember what a single one of those poems were even about. I just remember that the book was yellow. I had found a yellow folder, the kind that has grommets down the center for notebook paper. On it I wrote my title: “A Child’s Garden of Godly Verses” in my very best handwriting. Then I carefully drew a little garden with rows of flowers all in full and vibrant bloom. And I added an illustrated poem as often as possible.
As the time came closer to give her my little book, I became more and more anxious about it. It had not been a good year for me academically. I had reached a point in school where my ADHD and dyslexia were becoming a serious problem. Of course, they were not diagnosed and were treated as rebelliousness, refusing to do good work out of a desire to displease God and I was beaten accordingly. Those problems were also making me afraid of writing, and dreading it as an academic subject. No matter how good my report was or how creatively I wrote a story, I never got a better grade than a C. And although I was having similar struggles in math, they had limited expectations for me there. But I always got in trouble for “squandering the gifts God gave me” when it came to writing.
So by the time that my mother’s birthday rolled around and it was time to give her the yellow notebook, which I had filled at first hopefully and later dutifully, I was filled with anxiety so intense it felt like anguish. I searched around frantically, trying to find another gift so that I could just slip the notebook out of the house and hide it at the bottom of the trashcan. Though even that plan worried me because I feared someone might find it at the bottom of the trash and associate it with me.
As luck would have it, my mother’s birthday was on a Sunday that year. I handed her the book, carefully wrapped in newspaper and tied with my favorite ribbon. She accepted it with all the over-effusiveness to which mothers are prone. She oohed and awed over it in a way that told me that she was glad that I loved her enough to put so much work into it, but that she was not actually impressed by the poetry. I was relieved but still wary. Sure, her mothering instincts had kept her from pointing out all but a few mistakes, and she hadn’t made a move towards punishing me. But what if she showed it to someone else?
That night, my worst fears were realized when she passed my book around the table at a church ice cream social. As I had feared, and despite my best efforts, the book was filled with spelling mistakes and what were essentially handwritten typos. I knew it was going to be bad.
The cult that I grew up in was very small, but not so small that it didn’t have a cliquish inner-circle. It met every Sunday night after the evening services for a little ice cream social at the home of the church’s queen bee.
Everyone in the Queen Bee and the pastor’s favor sat around a large table in her kitchen and gossiped. Of course, they would never call it that, and perhaps I should not either for it is too mild of a word. These were the meetings at which those absent had their characters picked apart and barbequed. This was the round table of the character assassins. It was a favorite hobby of theirs – ascribing evil motivations to benign actions. A person could go home after church on a Sunday night and everyone would still be thinking of them as an upright and God-fearing person. But if they were the subject of a Sunday night session, they would wake up the next day condemned as someone who, at best, was “not right with God.” Sometimes it was decided in these meetings that a person had demons surrounding and controlling them. The ice cream socials often ended with a “Burn the witch!” mentality.
Occasionally someone at the table would be the subject of the night’s festivities, and would leave so emotionally battered it would take months for them to recover. A mob mentality would overtake the group and even spouses would end up joining in a ritual that felt like watching a wolf-pack take down a reindeer.
Occasionally, I was the topic of conversation. This was where some of the more horrifically memorable punishments of my childhood originated. One that stands out in my mind was a punishment inflicted for forgetting what were called “baby verses.” These were passages of scriptures that I had learned when I was very young, and that I should have been able to recall and recite given nothing more than the scriptures reference (ex: John 1:12.) I frequently would panic when given a scripture reference. My mind would go completely blank. When beatings failed to improve my memory, the ice cream social posse came up with a more memorable punishment.
They reasoned that if I could not remember and recite baby verses, I must want to be treated as a baby. So they fashion a diaper for me out a dishtowel and forced me to spend the night wearing that and nothing else. The shame of being a grade school girl forced to wear a diaper was compounded by the shame of being nearly naked. They had ingrained modesty rules into me from a small child. So it was mind-shatteringly shaming to be nearly naked in front of them, to be forced to sit on their laps like a baby when I wanted nothing more than to at least be allowed to slink down into the scrap of dignity afforded by a chair. That was far worse for me than the insult they added to injury, mocking my roll of baby fat and any babyish mannerisms they could find. As I aged, each time that this punishment was inflicted was more traumatic than the last.
Psychologists tell us that memory works in mysterious ways, that sometimes two memories united by the same very strong emotion can become entangled in ways that make them hard to untangle.
I think that is what must have happened for me. Because in my memory of the night that my mother showed my book around, I am naked except for a dishtowel while they rip apart my book for over an hour. I am nearly naked while they tell me how my book disappoints and dishonors God because of the mistakes and poor spelling. In my memory, I am nearly naked and intensely vulnerable when they tell me that it is a horribly shameful thing to be unable to spell correctly, when they tell me that no one will ever read my writing because I spell poorly, that I will be lucky to get a job in an office but that I will be fired just as soon as they find out that I cannot spell. And I am dressed in a tea-towel when I am convicted of not loving God enough to do my best in service for Him.
My punishment for writing my first book was that the following summer I spent six hours a day five days a week writing out every word that I had misspelled in the book correctly ten times in a row. I received one blow with a cutting board across my legs every time that I transposed the word. Transposing a word from the dictionary to my page, which I often did, got me ten blows and then I had to do it all over again the next day.
I finished paying for the mistakes of my first book two weeks before school went back into session. It was barely long enough for the bruises to heal.
When I was in high school, my mother happened across the little yellow book as she was packing to move into the home of her new husband. “Do you want this old thing?” she asked me in an offhanded tone, as if she wasn’t handing me the most shameful manuscript in the world.
I thought about how ashamed I would be if someone found it and I quietly nodded. I hid it in a spot where I knew no one would look, a box of maxi-pads. I transferred it from hiding spot to hiding spot over the years. My husbands never saw it or my kids.
Two years ago we had a fire, and the restoration specialists found it where I had hidden it, between the front and backing of an old throw rug I kept stashed in the back of the linen cupboard. The guy looked at me and it oddly, but asked only if I wanted them to restore it or if it could be photographed and disposed of. I acted as if I wasn’t quite sure what it was and looked at in puzzlement until he was distracted. Then I quietly slipped out of the room. I emptied both of the cat’s litter pans, folded the book into a square and placed it in the center so no one picking up the bag could feel it. I double-bagged it, and then dropped it not into the regular trash, which could be gone through on the way to the dump, but in the one labeled toxic waste.
Now I get to write my second book. I still can’t spell worth a shit and my dysgraphia still makes my work challenging. I know that trolls will sit around in a cyber ice cream social and pan it endlessly. And there is even the possibility that I might even feel punished at some point for having written it.
But the worst has already happened to me as a writer in a free society (barring a Rushdie incident.) I have been shamed beyond the place that I thought that I could bear it and I have been beaten for what I have written.
And I figure it this way: My second book has to get a better reception than my first.
Even if it doesn’t, I am no longer a little girl clothed in nothing more than a dishtowel and vulnerability. I have my dignity, my sense of purpose and the love of non-abusive people.
And despite their predictions, I am a writer. People do want to read me despite my occasional typos.
Here is the promise that I make to myself and to that little kid in the dishtowel: I will never again allow myself to become so ashamed of my writing that I hide it in cat shit. I will embrace my mistakes along with my victories. And no one will ever put me in a dishtowel again.