When I was little, my brother and I collected glass pop bottles in our wagon and headed to the little store nearby where we cashed them in for a penny apiece. We used the pennies to buy candy. I can still taste the sweet stickiness of Bit-o-Honey as it melted in my mouth and molded around my teeth.
The man who worked at the store wrote down our purchases on a little pad with carbon between the pages. He kept the top copy and we got the yellow one with the purple scrawl.
I longed for one of those pads, and my parents got me one. Long before I could read I was writing on my pad, mesmerized by how the carbon made my scrawls, or even my fingernail drawn lines, purple.
I wrote and wrote on those little pads.
In second grade I got a diary for Christmas and I recorded my days in it for a week or so.
Monday: “VV and me played dodge ball.”
Each day was the same. A little girl named “VV,” whose face and identity faded from memory long ago, and I played dodgeball with 20 or so others. I remember how the red rubber smashed onto my legs. It didn’t hurt, but the game seemed cruel anyway.
On Friday I wrote, “VV and me played dodge ball. I’m tired of dodge ball.”
My handwriting was always terrible. In first grade I was kept in from recess because I wrote with my left hand. I had to sit on my left hand and make Os with my fat red pencil held awkwardly in my right hand until the line met in a circle.
Poor Mrs. Williams. I was such a disappointment to her. My brother had graceful handwriting, the kind that was sent home with metallic sticky stars on it. If my handwriting was messy with my left hand, it was barely readable with my right.
Nevertheless, it still spoke to me.
I don’t remember when I began thinking of myself as a writer. By ninth grade certainly. By tenth I was writing for the school newspaper. By my junior year I was writing sports for the Santa Fe New Mexican.
I remember sitting in the newsroom on Saturday nights listening to the paper and keys feeding the AP News wire into rolls on the floor.
I loved picking up the telephone and writing down details of high school football games given by breathless football coaches. If their team lost, details were few. If they won, the coaches couldn’t stop talking.
In college I began to understand that people read what I wrote. In addition to news, I wrote editorials and they stirred up big responses. I got quite a bit of hate mail.
I once got a notice from one of the offices on campus that a letter had come for me with postage due. Letters were currency—sometimes they literally had currency in them if they were from my dad—and I ran to pay the postage.
When I opened it, I read an anonymous letter from someone who wished me dead. I stayed in my locked dorm room for two days. After I left I looked at people differently, wondering if I knew the person who hated me.
In my sophomore year, I wrote a scathing editorial about the administration of my college. Some weeks later, the President called me to his office and said, “I wonder if you wouldn’t be happier at a different school.”
It didn’t dawn on me until days later that he was asking me to transfer.
I didn’t transfer. But I did learn an important lesson. For the first time in my life I saw that I had power. A 50-year-old man was affected by, intimidated by my 19-year-old writing.
My words had always mattered to me, but I realized they mattered to others, too.
If I could give you anything, I would give you this realization. Your words matter. Your words don’t need any audience but you, but it’s wonderful to have a larger audience.
It’s magical when people read your words and hear your voice through them. Readers have become witnesses to my life.
Sometimes my words do better than to inspire murderous thoughts. Sometimes they help me sort through the mush of emotion inside my head, they help me see through the weight of fear and give life to hope.
Today is the sixth annual National Day on Writing, sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English, an organization to which I’ve belonged for 25 years. I encourage you to write down your words and share them with someone today.
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