Question 1 - Describe the motivational spark that ignited your need to become a writer?
There’s no one thing that ignited me to write, but I can go after a few events and thoughts that were pivotal. (Just as there are many paths that lead me to write, there are many that divert my attention away.)
My first memories of childhood revolve around getting in trouble for saying the wrong thing. My mother would become suddenly furious about what I said, and I was never able to remember or discern at the time what it was that set her off. Perhaps I liked the writing when I finally came to it at seventeen as evidence about my thoughts—they exist—they are not bad or in themselves, wrong. I could write however I wanted as opposed to classroom work, though I did have a miraculous English teacher in my junior or senior year, 1962-63, who assigned us to write observations in a journal, daily observations of any sort. Things we witnessed during the day. She put a note in the margin that said, “Merimée, you are verbally very deft.” This praise affected me like a brain tattoo, an encouraging one. That phrase fueled me through many an impasse. I decided to believe her, to know that I am well-spoken at least with a pen.
In interacting with my mother, I spoke less and less, knowing that she wanted silent daughters to help her with her boring housework and the tedious tasks of baby care: there were three more kids that followed me and I was old enough to earn my keep feeding, changing diapers (cloth ones), and maintaining a House Beautiful cleanliness even when we were broke and lived in dumpy little houses.
At least my dad was able to provide houses, and things did get better for my parents financially, eventually. In the early years, we’d move in the middle of the night, or leave a school at lunch time never to return, or go to sleep in one city and wake up in another, farther and farther north, where his plan was to sell lumber and make a fortune. By the time I was leaving home, he had hit pay dirt that lasted about a decade. But for all those in between times, when we kids would wake up with most our stuff gone, dolls and bikes too burdensome to transport, Daddy would bring his books.
He’d been a scholar, and though he was 4-F and in grad school, WWII demanded that all who could do anything to further our war effort would have to, even the ones with flat feet and coke bottle glasses. He married my mother on his way out of town , and so his journey toward a PhD at Berkeley imploded. He would eventually abandon my mother after twenty-eight years and five kids, but he never abandoned his collection of books. I was twelve or so when I realized books had whole worlds inside them, places and people who were different from my family; there were poets who wrote in short lines I liked even if I couldn’t understand what they were about. Years earlier, I’d been asked after dinner to pull a book out of the one, low bookcase we had that was built into the divider between a small living room and a smaller dining room, and read to mom and dad while they had their coffee. Mom was holding the new baby boy, a second son.
I randomly opened Wallace Stevens and simply began. The first positive comments of my life were that night from my mother: “She reads like she knows what she’s saying!” I was not raised in the child-centered, child rearing era. I didn’t get the meaning of the poems, but somehow I knew the lines were musical, though I’d never seen written music. Not that I was trying my hand at poetry yet; it’s just that connecting with words was for me like connecting with a ball for a boy. I was nine and I had done something smart. It seemed I had a talent. I was rewarded with a subscription to a girls’ magazine called Polly Pigtails, which I loved beyond anything in the world. My mother had another baby the year the magazines started coming in the mail for me. We never ever went anywhere, so these pages were my way out. They still are. If I’m feeling low or with time to spare, I find a good essay or even a novel—yes, in my retirement I have time for novels again. I am transported by good writing, by excellent skills in writing, by the depth of the best writers’ digging into subject or story.
I was fourteen when we left northern California for the Emerald Valley and Eugene, Oregon, where my father had his final plan for buying cheap and selling dear; much of the lumber that built Orange County and half of LA in the Sixties came through my father’s little office. He and his partners leased five acres on the LA waterfront. Our new house was on the Eugene Country Club’s sixth fairway, and my last three years at home showed some affluence in our two-car carport and the parents’ many trips to San Francisco for 49ers’ games. Those trips must have been to placate my mother, for as much as my father was a maxima cum laude scholar, my mother was a jock—a match which no one could win. Ultimately, his success would buy him the first divorce on the block, but before that happened, I dropped out of college and was shown the front door well before Time magazine’s article on hippies. I had read the Beats, Snyder and Kerouac right off my dad’s shelves, and they interested me.
I found myself in my cousin’s apartment in the City (aka San Francisco) that winter of 1964. After failing my her lesson on bulimia—touted as the most miraculous way to keep weight off (nothing and I mean nothing, not even a glass of dish-soapy water could make me puke up good food), I was sitting with a spiral notebook I’d tucked into my one suitcase and I started writing—just writing. I’d barf words on the page since I’d failed at dumping food into the toilet. After the whole page was covered, I knew something was happening. Writing connected me to myself in a pleasant way; my thoughts were completely free of how they sounded to others, f how I looked to others, just free floating on the page, my first creation. That winter of 1964 was the beginning of a decade of diaries, written in tiny print because notebooks were expensive on a dropout’s budget.
I’d been living in the land of plenty, the Great Society with my parents enough to know my needs would somehow be met, also that I had to get the hell away from their crazy money-loving, alcoholism and free myself from the servitude and sulk that had become my mother’s life. I was having none of it! Marriage, normalcy, the white picket, prison-like fence of the middle class could go fuck itself. There was something Out There I wanted: people who could feel, people who could laugh, be passionate, some kind of brand new life, a place where children wouldn’t get smacked for speaking. It would be a few years before feminism would formulate and congeal into a movement incited by Ms. magazine’s first issue in 1972. By then I’d be good and ready to hear that miraculously welcome message. And I kept writing. I still didn’t know I could “Be” anything or anyone. I tagged along behind musicians; handsome, bad boy friends; druggies who’d been married and failed. Losers, seekers, fixer-uppers, and I kept writing diaries, along with making a living sewing (my designing business in Taos was called Divine Fit Sewing—an oblique nod to my feelings about sewing for a living rather than writing), cooking and baking (downtown Taos), single parenting also started in Taos, and I kept writing off and on, journals, my thoughts. All secretive, mostly sad I’d guess; I will never know because my second therapist suggested tying up loose ends in order to move ahead, and I took 15 or 16 some notebooks and dumpstered them—gone in 1978. I was 32. Time for a new life! No more poor-choice men, no more recreational drugs keeping me in an endless loop of up and down. Nope. New life. New Day, and it was. The diary dumping I have sometimes regretted, but they were so full of sorrow I couldn’t bear their weight. I came to believe that whatever was worthy of keeping, I had inside me. Whatever I needed for moving forward, I had inside me. I still believe that.