I wrote my first story when I was eight years old. I remember that it was about a family of bears, but I don’t remember the plot. My mother was so proud of me that she took the story in to work to show her co-workers. I think it was the fact that I had done something that made my mother proud that meant more to me than the idea that I had created a story at that age.
From that time on I continued to write—in high school and college, after marriage and kids, stories and poetry that I wrote and tucked into folders found only after retirement. Most were incomplete, some were not very good, a few had potential if only I could remember where the plot was going. By the time I was in my fifties, I had completed a young adult novel and then in my sixties a memoir about sisters, my sister and me, coping with the challenges of breast cancer, an experience that ended well for only one of us.
I have always had folders full of poetry. When I was a teacher, I wrote a poem every Christmas for colleagues who had become lifelong friends. The poems came in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, and at first I did not keep a journal and pen next to the bed. I soon learned how necessary that was. The way the brain works fascinates me. Why is it that thoughts come so easily sometimes but then can’t be transferred onto paper, even a few minutes after the thought has come? I write entire lines of poetry and when I go to put them on paper, some words, some great rhymes, have already gone, disappeared somewhere, still within the brain?
Those Christmas poems I wrote would often be connected to an experience I had, and I would write a prose paragraph to go along with the poem. Then the real problem began. I needed a gift to match the poem. The first poem I wrote rhymed and was about stars and the heavens and our mortality. The gift was a star ornament, the easiest gift to get. One year I wrote about a trip driving back to New York from Arizona at Christmas time, coming down the mountains in Las Cruces, New Mexico at night, the valley sparkling with lights, like diamonds falling from the sky. I can be fairly certain the gift that year did not contain diamonds. One year I wrote about a lighthouse at Christmas, explaining in the prose paragraph that went with the poem that my father loved lighthouses, my father who had just died that year, and the gift was a lighthouse ornament, not as easy to find as one might expect. Some of my poems rhymed, some did not. Sometimes I wrote both rhymed and unrhymed versions and then struggled to decide which was best. I scoured the stores for wrapping paper that would match the poem and the gift, angels and lighthouses and stars. All of these poems came to me in the middle of the night or early in the morning. My husband soon got used to the light suddenly coming on, and the sound of my pen scratching words frantically on to paper, trying so hard to recapture what had just moments before sounded absolutely perfect but no longer was.
This early morning creativity does not happen every morning, a very good thing. But when it does, I struggle to put on the light and write it all down. I can convince myself that if I repeat the lines over and over again in my head, that when I do finally get up and maybe even after breakfast and some coffee, I will be able to write it down almost exactly the way it occurred within my brain. I have noticed that when this happens, I am actually forming the words in my mouth, tongue moving against teeth and palate and speaking without speech. Is that how it is for everyone, I wonder? Is that the way all thought becomes speech, and if we don’t actually speak the words, they melt into the mouth and go away?
I have a friend, a very intelligent math and science teacher I taught with for twenty-one years, who has lost her ability to speak clearly after a terrible fall that caused extreme head trauma. One of her best and worst traits is a stubbornness that often gets her into trouble but which has also enabled her to survive some pretty challenging times in her life. She did not think it was necessary to go the hospital after the fall, and it was a week later that a friend noticed she was unable to speak clearly. She ended up in intensive care in the hospital, suffering from a slow bleed in the brain. Weeks later she is still struggling to say the right words. She has made great progress, but when I visit her, I wonder what is happening inside her brain. I wonder if words are forming in correct order in the brain but she can’t organize them into speech or are the thoughts all jumbled inside even before she tries to speak? She cries out, “I hate this!” and I am sad and terrified for her. What if her intelligent thoughts stay inside of her forever?
I know only vaguely how my own brain functions or does not at times. I try in those early morning hours to memorize the thoughts that come to me and later write them down. Or I immediately grab a pen and paper and write frantically what I can retrieve, and it is never as good in written form as when it is still inside my head. I can’t imagine what is locked inside the head of a patient with Alzheimer’s or someone who has had a stroke, like Dick Clark who years after his stroke still struggles to speak clearly.
I won’t complain about those words inside of my brain that never make it to the page. I know that they could be retrieved in some form and make sense, although that’s not to say they will ever be considered great words in great writing. But when I visit my friend, I am ever-so-grateful that I am capable of those scratchings on paper in the middle of the night, no matter how good or bad they are.