When I was about seven years old, my grandmother let me sit at her electric typewriter. Her office, housed in a cold and unfinished basement, had equine pencil drawings from a talented granddaughter on one wood paneled wall and photos of her and grandpa posing with a variety of friends on another. The chrome chair boasted about seven mismatched seat cushions of differing colors, textures and sizes. On the back of the chair hung oversized wool sweaters, cotton throws and a crocheted blanket of a startling mixture of colors. The result was a chair that looked something like a tiny vanilla cupcake loaded with five inches of layered pink, yellow, blue and green frosting, sprinkles, and patriotic flags, all sliding off to different sides.
I am a sucker for a good how-to, easily taken in by the alluring simplicity of a numbered list of steps. Luckily, this is the age of the Internet tutorial, with the tackling of all manner of life’s mysteries now available in slideshow format. How to build a yurt. How to clean a dishwasher. How to make a fishtail braid.
A few years ago I was asked to write an essay on the importance of poetry in our time and place. I did not accept right away. The task was daunting; my impulse was to say no.
When I sit down to write, I pretend I am speaking at an event. I’m the plenary at the Festival of Faith and Writing, for example. Or I’m giving my acceptance speech for this year’s Newbery Award. Once, I pretended I was giving the commencement speech at the University of Notre Dame. I was never a student there, but I did teach step aerobics and my inspiring, motivational, and encouraging personality led the university to request my presence at graduation. In my fantasy, they would be giving me an honorary doctorate. For teaching aerobics.
“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”—Frederick Buechner