(I was recently tasked with writing an artist statement about why I write. Here's what I said.)
I think I’m a writer because of the lizard.
Or perhaps it’s the tampon box.
As a child growing up in the Florida Keys, it was not uncommon for me to stare endlessly at a lizard, trying to see the world as the lizard did. My own scaly fingers grasping the bark of a tree. The shadow of my long body, the itch of shedding skin, even the hazy shape of a young girl in the background.
I’ve always had this obsession with how another person’s experience differs from my own, especially if we occupy the same space. The minute differences of temperament, personality, and experience are more cataclysmic than we could ever imagine, a butterfly effect of the soul.
As a child, I became the lizard. As an adult, and writer of literary fiction, I become the old lady in the woods, the hippie braiding wind chimes on a beach, the old man searching for heroism on the sea. I’ve been a German man hiding a package from America beneath his coat on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, and a young woman who nearly died in an Alaskan expedition accident. As an author, it’s not enough to write about that young woman who survived near death in Alaska. I must understand why she was there in the first place, what she’s seeking, what she’s running from, and what decisions she must soon make that will change the trajectory of her life. I must know what secrets she will take to her grave, and why. Always, “why?”.
But perhaps the greatest challenge of this art form is not in revealing to the reader every detail of a character’s life and story. It’s choosing what to leave out. Every book is a grand painting, made even more spectacular by large areas of blank space on the canvas. Those gaps reveal a mystery that the reader fills in on their own, much of the time without noticing. Because those gaps are our own personal butterfly effects. We connect the dots through our own filters, our own lenses, and in that act, every character belongs to us in a very personal way. You might say that being an author is a collaborative art form. As the writer, I begin the project. As the reader, you finish it. And here, there be magic.
As a young girl, I was obsessed with my mother’s tampon box. Not so much the tampons themselves, but that little illustrated instruction manual tucked inside. Diagramed in all its pastel-colored glory was the cross-section of a cleanly illustrated female labyrinth, her shy cervix folded at the finish line. This was my first glimpse into the world of grownup mysteries. The puzzles yet to solve, my own feminine mystique unfurling before me. And I couldn’t help but wonder: What else was there to discover?
Thus began the early onset of my quest to become a grownup. Everything I did as a child – from makeup thick as seafoam to moving out on my own after tenth grade – was part of my mad dash to adulthood. One might blame my dropping out of high school on a distaste for learning, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I craved knowledge (I still do!), even more so than the average person because high school dropouts, it seems, have a lot to prove. It was a winding road in those late teen years, but I had made it – I was officially, finally, a grownup. In control of my own life. Solving the puzzles, no pastel-colored diagram required.
So, maybe I write because I’m a life-long learner, always trying to prove more, do more, in my quest to become a real adult. I write because I need to be in control of my own life. I write because visual art couldn’t reveal well enough the stories swirling inside my brain. I write because if I’ve learned anything as a grownup, it’s that there are always new mysteries to uncover, new mystiques to create. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never understand it all. And this is what makes tomorrow, and the next day (and the next) so exciting!
Each day that I’ve been lucky enough to call myself an author, I raise a glass to that silly illustrated cervix that opened my eyes to the world of the hidden and complex. And I toast to that lizard on a tree, who first taught me to feel the bark from afar, the constraint of shedding skin, the fear of a seagull soaring high above, his shadow growing larger. Larger still.