In the summer, I love to read. I love books that take me to far away places, and also books that help me learn something. This summer, I first went to ancient Rome, Ephesus, and Jerusalem and wanted to be just like gentle, humble Hadassah in Francine River's "Mark of the Lion" books. Then, I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Dan Brown took me on another wild ride that combined literature and art history (his old staples) with my fave- genetics- in Inferno. I've visited Afghanistan once again with Khaled Hosseini in And the Mountains Echoed. And somewhere mixed into those trips, John Grisham told me a funny little story about how to get out of prison in The Racketeer. When I read, I inevitably want to write, because even though I slack off during the school year, once my mind gets slightly quiet, and I'm not consumed by doing, doing, doing, then I can hear my writer's voice in my head...always writing, always.
It's been this way since I was a child- I think that it began somewhere around the 5th grade, but I didn't really know what it was. I kept up journals in those days, keeping track of mundane events like lots of little girls do, but using too many words and writing with what I am pretty sure was an excess of emotion for a 5th grader. I remember reading the Diary of Anne Frank when I was in the 6th grade and thinking that I had found a kindred spirit. I didn't really understand why at the time. I found her story so captivating, and I immediately became consumed with all things Holocaust related. I told Andy the other day that there was a time when I could have named and located on a map nearly all of the death camps in Europe. I realized later, though, that it wasn't the suffering or the fear or even the captivity that I related to- how could I? My childhood was almost ideal. The greatest suffering that I knew was being left out of building a fort in the woods by my brother and our friend, Brad. As for captivity, I was home-schooled for a couple of years, which might have led to some connection on the plane of feeling kept from the rest of the world, but today, I'm convinced that the main connection was the voice. Anne's voice, her writer's voice- the voice that went into great detail, that analyzed events and then drew conclusions, the voice that forever works to make sense of the madness and the mundane. I knew that I didn't have much of a story, but I knew that I did have a voice.
Throughout high school, the voice would come and go. But I can't say, as some writers can, that I always knew that I was a writer. Probably because I wasn't actually writing- not with any actual effort anyway. There were freak moments when the truth about my writer's voice would come to light. For example, my Senior year, my high school gave away subject awards. The writer's award did not go to me- it went to another girl who helped edit the yearbook, and who had hopes of going off to New York and becoming someone far more cosmopolitan than I aspired to be. I can't say that I blame the teachers for giving her the award, though I have no idea if she was a good writer. I had done absolutely zero to prove myself as a writer. I received the "Sam I Am" award, a sad acknowledgement of my devotion to my high school boyfriend. But I remember that when AP scores came out that summer, I got a five on English literature and composition. The girl who received the award got a four.
In college, I went back to my childhood dream of wanting to become a veterinarian. As I trudged my way through science courses that were more like a foreign language to me than the Spanish that I was pursuing as a minor, I was asked to be a part of an honors program, not because I was naturally gifted at science- I was not. Nor have I ever been. But because I had worked hard and scored the GPA points to be asked. It was in this honors program, though, that I had the opportunity that undergrads dream of- the opportunity to work closely with researchers and professors, to be a part of the "real" science at NC State. And, the opportunity to be noticed, which could lead to recommendations that might help you get into grad school, which was paramount to everyone at the time. In one project, I worked with a group of students researching the sad events involved in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. We watched documentary films and discussed bioethics together as a group, but the fruit of that process was meant to be a paper, which I volunteered to write it, mostly because the rest of the group members were good scientists, and I didn't trust their writing. Ha! I remember staying up late into the night, fretting over the words. In the end, the paper was twenty-seven pages long, the most I'd ever written. The professor who advised our group sent it to Tuskegee University, where it was well received, according to my professor. (I'll never really know) Nearly a year later, that professor invited me to join his research team, an invitation that practically guaranteed me acceptance into a graduate program, a nearly unheard-of opportunity. I declined. He was a professor whose research was in the area of poultry science. I'd written a good paper, and it was the writer, not the scientist, who had caught his attention- I knew that, even if he didn't. I had no interest in research at that time (though I've grown so much fonder of science and research since then) I've never regretted that decision.
There were stabs at writing here and there as the years went by, but nothing solid. It was like dipping a toe, maybe even an entire foot into the pool, but never actually jumping in. There was an acceptance into a masters program in creative writing at Dallas Theological Seminary, a few columns published by local newspapers, a writing class I took, and this insufferable blog. But writing was never truly an intentional driving force for me, as it is for many other courageous creative types who work sacrificially at menial jobs so that they can practice their craft at night or on their days off. I was never willing to take that plunge, but how can I dismiss the importance that my writing has had in my life? I met Andy when I was at a pub to write an article for a local arts & entertainment journal. One could argue that, if I were not a writer, I'd have never even met him. I got my current job as a science teacher at Hill Country Christian School, not because of my college GPA, my years of teaching experience or the relatively high standardized test scores my students received in North Carolina. My headmaster has told me more than once that he read my essay that I submitted as a part of my application, and was convinced that I needed to teach at Hill Country.
An editor once told me that I needed to "write a book before life got in the way." And it was that advice, and my own similar thoughts that led me to start Snapshots of Who I Am in early 2010. The editor had told me that I had a strong writer's voice, and that might be true, but what I've always lacked, what I still lack- is story. I read books like And the Mountains Echoed, and I am in awe of the vivid and intricate story that Hosseini can tell. I have an incredibly limited imagination. I can't write about anything that I don't see happen in front of me. For those things that do happen, I can weave together nouns and verbs- in fact, I have to. It's a compulsion, not a talent. But I cannot come up with anything new. I wish I could because I love fiction, but I most certainly cannot write it. So it stands to reason that Snapshots came about because of something that I was hearing, seeing, experiencing. It was a book about finding your identity, and I felt like I could write it because I had lost mine.
In 2010, I had just gotten married, had moved more than a thousand miles from my home and family, and was experiencing one of the greatest heartaches of my life thus far. I wasn't teaching, wasn't working at all for a while, and was trying to force myself to write something that made sense in the middle of my completely disheveled, painful, nonsensical life. And yet, on some days, I actually thought it might all come together. Hubris, I now think. Or just the desperate hope that it would all knit together into something meaningful, if not beautiful, something that could help other people, because that would at least make the pain of it a little more worthwhile. That never happened the way that I once hoped it would. But I do think that some of the lessons that I learned from the process- from the events themselves, from my reactions, from the words that God spoke to me in the pain- have forever changed who I am, and that's what it was all about anyway.
I remember writing the intro of the book and talking about the search for identity. I wrote about a trip I took to San Francisco when I was a girl. We visited Alcatraz, of course, and I remember the tour guide taking us to the cells where prisoners were kept for solitary confinement. She told us that, to pass the time, prisoners would tear a button off their uniform and toss it into the darkness. Then, they would search for it on all fours, feeling the cold, concrete ground with their fingertips until they finally found what they were looking for. Then, they would toss it again. That's how my life was in 2010. Like my identity had been tossed out into the darkness, and like I was trying desperately to find it.
Snapshots of Who I Am was a book about finding identity. The blog postings that follow will tell, in some shape or form, its story. It's the only story I have. Remember, I can't write fiction.