I’m not sure what makes me think that the words on the screen in front of me–words that I am writing through an intricate system of neurons and biochemical transmissions which somehow allow me to get the voices from my head onto a screen for others to read–are worth reading. By anyone. Ever. It strikes me, right now, listening to my own words reverberating in my skull, that it must take an incredible amount of courage and narcissism to be a writer. And, as I continue to rewrite and try to clarify, I am highly aware of the fact that I am, essentially, having a conversation with myself right now. So why do I think anyone would ever want to participate in this dialogue (monologue?)?
I have two very clear memories from high school that illustrate my complex relationship with writing. One was when I tried to pass off a trite, fairly horrible, poem as my own. It was a poem that had somehow gotten passed around by overly angsty teenage (mostly) girls, revealing the mysteries of true love. It had that painful combination of Seussian rhythm and rhyme, coupled with platitudes about fate, destiny and “being complete.” There was no attributed author, and I thought it was clearly better than anything I could have written, so in it went, to our elderly English teacher, Mrs. Kassberger. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who tried to pass this thing in…there were three of us standing in front of Kassberger’s desk that afternoon, looking at the same poem on three different papers with three different names attached. I had two choices: come clean about my foray into plagiarism or hold fast to the lie that got me there.
The other defining moment came a year later. I was a junior and had finally, after eleven years of public education, encountered a teacher who didn’t think that everything I wrote was a perfect work of art. In fact, she did the opposite. She told me my first writing piece was, “Good, for a first draft.” While I could have dismissed Ms. Gingold, I did not. She was different. Day after day, she showed me she was different: in how she spoke, how she moved through the classroom, how she noticed everything, even if she didn’t say a word. She was smart and she had high expectations and, most importantly, she seemed to see through my bullshit. She seemed to be the first person to actually see me. Clearly and completely. I wanted her to react to my best writing the way the others had all reacted to my mediocre writing. I wanted her to tell me that I had created something wonderful. A perfect work of art. A story worth reading. And then, one day, she did. Simply, tersely, without any emotion whatsoever, she said, “Amy, you should submit this to Meadowlark (our school’s literary magazine).” Then, she handed me back my short story.
I still vacillate between these two versions of me…or, more accurately, I hold both of them inside me at all times. As a veteran teacher of 17 years, I try to be more Gingold than Kassberger; I try to see my students, each one, for who they are and who they want to be when they turn their words over to me. I try to make them believe that their words matter and that they are writers when they write. I suppose that in publishing these “First Words” here, I am embracing both the student and the teacher in me…and hoping that there might just be a writer in there, too.