By Marilyn L. Davis
Growing up in a family of artists, I was always jealous of their talents when they captured emotions, exotic scenes, or reproduced life-like drawings. Then there were the props – the smell of paint, easels with a canvas fully covered, that only a few days before had been a completely white surface. Or an unfinished still life; waiting for the right light.
My mother was a cloth artist. She could buy a piece of fabric and two weeks later be in another store without a swatch and perfectly match the hue, family or an exact color.
I, on the other hand, confused red and orange.
My sister won her first art contest at age 7 while competing with adults. Since she is younger than I am, you can imagine how inadequate and unimportant I felt. Drawing, painting and winning art shows comes naturally to some children; writing, on the other hand, takes time to develop.
An Artist with Words
I think many of us who write, are artists with words. We have a picture in our mind when we are creating a story, article, or even correspondence. We want our readers to understand the information, but also create a visual representation in their “mind’s eye” that accurately conveys our thoughts and emotions.
Finding the style and voice to articulate our ideas and concepts usually takes much more time than being able to draw a realistic still life.
An Early Love of Words: Learning to Value the Black Squiggly Lines
Connecting the squiggly lines and learning that C-A-T spelled cat began my appreciation of words and the magic they can convey. While others around me created art, I found comfort in books that took me away to a different place.
I also found words to be a salvation. Learning to read at three sounds impressive but it was about expediency. As a baby, my sister had colic, and my mother could only take a nap when she was quiet. I did not like naps, so my mother gave me books to look at while she napped beside me.
Even at that age, I liked big books. I’d gotten the Child Craft Encyclopedia set at Christmas and loved those books. I looked at all of those black squiggly lines and knew that when my mother read to me, those lines told a story or described the pictures.
One day, after an exceptionally trying night with my sister, my mother found a picture of a cat and asked me to find all the other references to that word. She gave me a pencil and asked me to circle the word each time I found C-A-T in the books.
Trust me, there are a lot of types of cats in the world, and Child Craft had them all – big ones, domestic ones, fierce ones, and playful ones. Then I looked very hard for the word that matched. I probably spent enough time that my mother got a nap, and I found the word.
At 65, I still have one volume of that set, with a very large, shaky circle drawn around multiple words, but “cat” is somewhere in all of those circles. Starting with that one word, I began my life-long love of words. However, schools in 1953 did not know what to do with a little girl that read Nancy Drew. Without a gifted and talented program, the school decided that I read at a fourth-grade level and that I would have my reading lesson with fourth graders.
You all remember elementary school I’m sure; staggered lunches and then the playground. My first-grade class went to lunch while I was reading with the fourth graders. Since I missed lunch with my first-grade class, I had to endure lunch and playground with children that were two or three years older than I was.
The interesting thing was that the bullies in fourth grade did not pick on me; it was the ones who were bullied that pushed, shoved and tripped me on the playground.
The Pen is Mightier than the Sword – Kinda
I could not physically fight back, but I could harm them with obscure words. Dictionaries became my favorite book. Then I added a Thesaurus – a treasure trove for a six-year-old.
I come from a long line of educators – great aunts that taught 1st and 2nd grade combined in a consolidated school. My uncle was a professor at Rutgers University, and another aunt taught at Purdue University, so the written word has always had value.
Now, I could call the mean kids more important sounding names and on some level impress my relatives with my nose in a dictionary or Thesaurus.
A Rose by Any Other Name
I next discovered etymology or the study of word origins; that opened up an even more exciting world of words; calling the bullies such interesting things as a persecutor, oppressor, or tyrant.
Now I could tell those tyrants that they were drek and know its origin. Derived from Yiddish, it means filth and in Old English, threax is probably related to the Greek word, skatos meaning dung.
Unfortunately, it was not well received even if they didn’t know the meaning. Some talents just take time. Finding our voice, our audience, and what we are impassioned about does not happen overnight.
Reflective Writing and Improving
I also wrote in a diary. Writing as a child helped me process how I felt. Psychologists today understand the cathartic value of expressing our feelings, however, at the time, I was only trying to make sense of how isolated and different I felt. I also cut words from magazines that attracted me – the sound, the combination, or the color.
I had no idea at the time that this early writing and fascination with words was the beginning of my writing world.
I was learning that stringing words together told a story, or conveyed how I was feeling and what I was thinking. Those early writings and clipped images were the beginning of finding my reflective writing voice.
After retiring in 2011, I started writing a 400,000 word recovery curriculum, compiled from all my writings for residents at the recovery home I opened in 1990. From the Personal Discovery Guides, I was encouraged to write for several sites on addiction. When I got comments like, “You know what you’re talking about”, or “I can tell you’ve walked in my shoes”, I knew that memoir, redemption and change were my topics.
Even though I knew my topics, some of my first attempts weren’t stellar. But I wanted to continue and improve. Some of us find others who write and ask them to critique our works. We may only have two or three sentences that make sense, have an original thought, or our grammar is so bad that even our best friend has to remind us that each sentence needs a verb.
Or the dreaded comment – “It’s boring.” Still, we keep on writing.
Then one day, we find our passion. We know what we want to write about and how. It is our chosen topic, genuine voice, and style. We even manage to keep our tenses correct, our grammar is proper, and it is over 1500 words; and these words are magic; they perfectly convey what we are trying to say to our readers. Unfortunately, someone tells us it’s too wordy.
Nevertheless, we keep on writing because now we are honing our craft. And then we get published. Not a New York Times article, but one in a lesser publication – we don’t care.
Henry David Thoreau knew much about solitude, writing, and art. “A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.
It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but actually breathed from human lips; not be represented on canvas or in marble only, but be carved out of the breath of life itself.”
I’m a Writer and an Artist with Words
I have found an adult voice that in many ways, mimics my early diary writings; how I think and feel and my observations on life. I make an effort to stay true to that voice and style in my reflective writing.
I’m no longer jealous of my sister’s talents. My words have been translated into several languages enabling people to know me and my ideas in a way that no art on the wall can do. It may just be time to ask her if she kept that still life and who knows, maybe I can breathe additional life into my description of it now.
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