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Why I Write

By Sara Marie Richardson '02

Nonfiction Writing

Writing Objective: Write an essay about why you write.

When I was in first grade I told the entire lunchroom about the trip my family took to England over the weekend. My classmates’ eyes grew wide with admiration as I pulled five souvenir coins from the pocket of my purple corduroy skirt. “Hey Sara, did you see Rig Ben?” James Cory called from across table, his voice reaching a new octave in the excitement. ”Yah.” I answered casually after a slight pause. “Me and my parents sat on this bench right in front of it. When it rang I had to cover my ears up because it was so loud!” I tried to picture the postcard nix grandparents had sent me when they went to England the previous fall that featured Big Ben. I had the postcard, wrinkled and torn at the bottom of my backpack. My sweaty fingertips had smeared my grandmother’s spidery penmanship as I traced the words again and again with the effort of practicing the newly acquired skill of reading on my own.

The teachers whispered to each other at the corner table, knowing that a weekend trip to England in the middle of a nondescript November was unlikely. The third-grade teacher believed me only after I added a detailed description of the changing of the guard. My dad had helped me find a little tourist book when my grandparents had gone on their trip that contained all sorts of details about England. He had helped me read it each night, answering endless questions, until I knew the whole book by heart.

I became the star of the whole elementary school, showing my England coins at recess and using an English accent whenever I remembered. Soon in my stories, my dad became a famous author with books in the public library, and my mom had given birth to a baby, a little brother named Sammy. I began to lake gymnastics and dance classes. We often did routines with exotic jungle animals, tigers pacing beneath us as we twirled and flipped on bars above their ferocious jaws. I didn’t think of it as lying at all. If I had thought about my “stories” as lies, I wouldn’t have told them. I was very concerned with being good and nice, a model of a good first-grade citizen. I loved the attention, my classmates gathering in a tight circle around me to hear about the newest gymnastics routine with the baby monkeys, their eyes on my face as I smiled smugly. In my imagination, Mrs. Netten had placed the most stupendous and glittering gold star in the world right on the front of my snowflake sweater proclaiming me eternally destined for greatness.

My stardom was unfortunately short-lived. My parents came for conferences with Mrs. Netten the week before Christmas break. After discussing my progress in addition and my ability to use clay effectively my teacher leaned forward and whispered, “So. how was your trip to England?! My parent’s confusion showed in their flustered facial expressions as they attempted to explain my obvious lie. I sunk deeper into my little plastic chair with every word that undid the beautiful world I had created.

I lost dessert privileges for a month, but even sugar deprivation didn’t take away the glow that I got from all those people listening to me, hanging on my every word. I got in I rouble if I told my stories out loud, but if I wrote them down then even Mom and Dad were thrilled with my creativity. This began my writing career. I could write whatever I wanted, create new scenarios and tell everybody exactly how things looked through my eyes, how they should be, and no one would get upset. Somehow the rules of honesty didn’t apply to stories written on paper. By the time I finished third grade, I was again on top of the Elementary School World, all because I made things up and then put them on wide ruled spiral notebook paper.

It takes a certain amount of vanity to think that anyone would want to read what you have written. Writing things down makes them less and more real all at once. The writer can exaggerate more, but the words will always be imprinted on the paper, a permanent record of the ridiculous thought that one has for only a fraction of a second. Forcing others to lead your writing is like having a conversation where the other person never gets to say anything. Even if the reader disagrees, the writer in all his self-confident bold type has the last and final word on the topic. In order for a writer to think that they should always have the final decisive opinion, there must be faith in what will be permanent, the words.

A year ago, I was looking through a book full of photographs while in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, a thick hardcover book, the kind that Time-Life sells in commercials, and I flipped to a picture that seemed to explain my philosophy of writing. The black and white photograph lay heavy on the page, a picture capturing another photographer taking a picture of a broadly smiling woman who was posed in front of a painting. The painting featured the area found in the actual background as it appeared before it had been destroyed by war. The buildings in the real background was falling apart, roofs caving in. leaving gaping holes like the teeth in a Holloween jack-o’-lantern’s smile. Even in full color, the true scene would have seemed gray, lifeless, flat. Instead of showing the landscape in its diminished state, the photographer had found a new reality, a painting of the exact same buildings and sloping hills that used to be there. The scene that appeared in the background of the woman’s picture would not be the truth, but it would be the truth as she wanted it to be.

The set up reminded me of department store pictures of myself as a toddler. A screen featuring fields of wildflowers or a cheery holiday scene replaced the reality of Sears shoppers and a huge towel sale. In the same way that it was somehow more desirable to see my dimpled toddler face among the flowers than in the back of Sears, the photographer in the picture would rather only show the beautiful scene featured in the painting. It would become the woman’s memory instead of the real city that lay behind her.

However dangerous painting a new world may seem, no one gets hurt. My realistic brain knows the truth of any situation, but I can write the truth away. I would, obviously, make an awful reporter. I suppose I could write the truth but I would grimace the entire time. I know that the world is not as I perceive it. It does not appear to other people as it does to me, but if the world isn’t your own to change and form and create in your mind, then it will never belong to you at all. Writing your own world down, somehow makes it exist a little more. Other people can make side trips to see things the way that you do even if it’s only for five minutes. It’s your chance to plead your case. This is how it is to me.

I still write with a little of the vanity of my first-grade self. “Hey, listen to me!” squeaking through the blank space between every word. I have not been untruthful often since my lying rampage in the first grade. This is partly due to the fact that I have developed a terrible conscience. No one wants to be a liar. A liar is someone who is not to be trusted, who will always manipulate, twisting and stretching reality until it is unrecognizable. I would never want to be a liar, but writing gives a license to create any situation, moving people here and there like the iron or thimble in a game of Monopoly. It is control over the words and the audience. I haven’t lost my love of the attention of any reader, for however long I can remain interesting. The reader is drawn into the chosen words and thoughts, lured with honey sweet sounds and pictures, like the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. The essay is a world of your own ranking. As long as I keep a steady grip on the hand of reality I am free to imagine all I want. Writers are not liars because they are not supposed to create the truth as it was. I think that it is impossible to create the real truth, it is different in the minds of each person who experienced or thought about anything. A writer writes what is true to them, and what I create is real because it lives in my mind, as corny as it may seem. And now, as the reader reads, what I think about writing is in the mind of the reader and so it conies alive all over again in them. Events in your imagination are real in a way and even more if they are recorded and become real to someone else, your reader.

So, I have sat sandwiched between my parents outside Big Ben and listened to its” booming chime on a Saturday afternoon. My dad’s book could be waiting on a dusty shelf of the public library, and my little brother, Sam, making sweet baby gurgles front a crib in the corner- of a nursery that I have never seen, but that I know.