“I saw an angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.”
Nearly any artist will tell you that what was once a blank canvas, a block of clay, or a silence that needed to be filled with weeping melody came to be a completed work by hours of labor, bouts of unparalleled joy, and, in many cases, a shedding of tears. They will also tell you that much like Michelangelo’s winged companion, the final product is something that was envisioned long before the finishing touches. The same is true of writing. The marble, of course, is the paper (or in many cases, a computer monitor with a blinking cursor), and the words are the angels we unleash. In poetry, in fiction, and even in the carefully arranged words that make up a formal essay, a writer starts with an image in mind; the task-the challenge, the beauty of the thing-is in communicating that image.
I began writing when I was ten years old. I woke up early on a Saturday morning in the bedroom that I shared with my sister. She was still sleeping, and the pale glow of the eastern sky was not enough to chase away the desolate feel of the quiet house. It crossed my mind that perhaps my parents were gone-that they had abandoned us, or that something terrible had happened to them. Slightly frightened by the thought, but more intrigued than anything, I found some notebook paper and a pencil and started a story about the lives that my sister and I would lead if our parents had vanished. Can you imagine the things a ten your old girl and her twelve-year-old sister could do, without parents, making their own rules, basing their lives around their priorities of fun and curiosity? Soon my sister joined me in writing, and we exchanged pages of freshly scripted adventures. We scribbled furiously, racing at times, and traded ideas and settings. The stories themselves were unrealistic, choppy, and immature in many ways. Even so, it became the basis of a passion that would stick with me for many years. I continue to write, and while I no longer compose works of fiction that begin with a mysterious disappearance of my parents, the premise is the same: In the worlds I create, anything is possible.
Even before that summer morning that inspired me to visit lands of my own design, I loved to read. I was always amazed by the idea that a few hundred pages bound by glue could provide a person with a whole separate existence, how one individual’s concept of a character or a place could transfer in such a way. Because of the writer’s details, all those adjectives and adverbs, I could envision what began in the mind of another, fact or fantasy, with little inaccuracy. Those inaccuracies were what really fascinated me, though, those varience: Is this exactly what the author saw? Is it what other readers see? So many times while reading a description of a room, or running with a fictional character through a non-existent house, I would picture furniture arranged a certain way and imagine the carpet a particular color. The beauty was the idea that these were my places. Where they had come from I would never really know; sometimes they were rooms I’d seen before, but mostly they were made up of things that were entirely new to me: a pale yellow couch, a deep red tapestry with blue and silver inlays, a statue of a very tall cat. No one else could see them or feel quite the same way about them as I did.
My need to write is very similar to those things that inspired me to read. There are places that are too beautiful to be real, people that I so desperately need to exist, sarcasm and ironies and realizations that simply have to be expressed. These things are just concepts, just thoughts, and they demand to be let out. And so I write them; I let them out. The beauty of it is that as I unleash these metaphorical angels, I am swept away, taken to a place created entirely by me. It is a freedom that I could otherwise never experience. In reality, I may go to France, but I might not drink wine near the edge of a small cliff overlooking Paris, watching the colors of the sunset merge together, melting into sleep. One day, in my real life, I may even know what it is to be homeless, but I will never experience the desperation of hunger so intense that the word “shame” loses all meaning.
These are the places I go to, places that unfold before me as I capture their essence in description and dialogue, and the stay is wonderful. There is life experience in these imaginary escapes, new sensations and insights to be gained. I can live any life I choose, and I can move from one form of existence to another with each character into which I breathe that literary life. I will almost certainly never be rich or famous from my writing, and it will probably never be an activity to which I can dedicate a large measure of my time. Still, it will always be there. That’s good enough for me.