Kathryn A. Kopple
The standard question asked of a writer is the when question. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? In an interview published in The Paris Review, Susan Sontag remembers making copies of her writing and selling them for five cents when she was nine. Francine Prose asks the when question of Lydia Davis in a Bomb magazine interview. Davis traces her yen to write to age twelve. In an Amazon interview, J.K. Rowing recalls that she was six when she wrote her first story. Dani Shapiro tells Rumpus that he was a kid when he started keeping journals. Junot Díaz , Salman Rushdie, Gabriel García Márquez have discussed how they started to write at a young age. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? As a child comes the answer. We hear it so often that it takes on the quality of a mythos. Writers start young. They possess an inner creative gift. They are born writers.
As a kid, words never held my attention. They seemed to come out of nowhere. Holding a pencil just didn’t feel right. Syntax didn’t exist for me. The arrangement of words on a page passed me by or, rather, I bypassed it. I had no sense of direction. Right, left? Who knew you didn’t write up and down? Who cared? I had what you might call graphic apathy. I could speak, and a lot too. My speaking skills were quite developed. I was fluent in chit-chat. Talkative. If ever there were a village prattler, it would be me. In stark contrast to my loquacious tendencies, writing made me miserable. Transferring my thoughts to paper was punishing, not to mention superfluous. What is it do writers do if not transfer thoughts to paper?
Deficits in one area usually result in compensation of some kind or other. I could scarcely hold a crayon but my visualization skills were off the charts. Images formed in my head the way a passerine bird takes flight; quickly and without effort. My mind was full of colorful, intricate images. We all possess an “inner eye.” And mine was in over-drive. It recorded and invented, copied and embellished. Scientists call this manufacture of imagery “picture thinking.” For the picture thinker, images speak louder than words—and I mean, really loud. Often, I found myself scouring books, flipping page after page, in search of a drawing that didn’t exist. I spent a lot of time that way: imaging my way through books.
Because what use is a book without pictures? Alice (in Wonderland) asks this question before the White Rabbit runs by and she goes down the rabbit hole. To see those words, even now as an adult, means a great deal to me; they make me feel completely understood. There exists another little girl who gets her words mixed up and for whom words unleash chaos, nonsense; a girl who prefers pictures to the written word. The depth of my gratitude to Lewis Carroll can never be measured. What use is a book without pictures? How true is that?
For some. Most children begin writing around six years-old. I was closer to eight—okay, nine. Up to grade nine, no one “pushed” me, as my dad would say. He advocated a holistic learning approach with respect to my writing aversion. He had abiding faith in the powers of intuition and creativity. His faith never faltered. After all, we had writers in the family. Louis Untermeyer was said to be a distant relative. My great uncle published a mystery about New York’s Diamond District. The novel was called Florentine Finish. It won the Edgar. It was his second novel. His first book was The Priceless Gift, a book about culture and education that continues to be translated the world over. And there were other brilliant people in our family: an opera singer, a Julliard graduate, an actress, a valedictorian, and so on. My father could paint, play the piano, and write poetry. My mother was also an artist. She painted landscapes and my father painted horses. My sister was adept at glissandos on the piano when she was four. She is now a master pianist. With a family like that, writing should be a snap. I could get myself up to speed when I was ready. “Don’t push her.”
So no one did. As long as I sat quietly in the back of the class, my teachers let me do my own thing. They wanted me calm, not poking other students with a pencil. They needed me quiet, not shredding my worksheet. I boiled over a lot. There were the days in which boredom colluded with frustration like a pair of arsonists causing all kinds of flare-ups. Acting-up resulted in hall detention. I would be ordered to stand outside the classroom until the bell rang. After several hall detentions, the advantages of placidness became more apparent. I settled down, withdrawing as far as I could into my world of daydreaming and reverie.
Until, the halt-screech of reckoning intervened. The middle school guidance counselor called my parents and they had a conversation. Specifics are lacking but conjecture tells me whatever the guidance counselor told them about me wasn’t pretty. I couldn’t read much. I certainly couldn’t write. Ergo, I was kind of stupid. They talked about kids like that back then: dull, stupid, retarded. The administration may have decided to place me in a class with other children who fit the description. I have this picture in my mind of spending a day in a dark room with three desks, two other students, and cleaning equipment. I had never seen the other students before. Maybe they lived there? Or maybe someone figured they were too dangerous to let out? The broom closet was as good a place as any to store bad kids. I sat down at the desk. Ms. whoever the teacher was shut the door behind her. She was now a shadow. She was a shadow among other shadows. The ghostly students did their work. No-one looked in my direction. I had been instructed to ignore them. Keep my eyes on the paper in front of me.
And I obeyed. In retrospect, the shadows, the other students, the silence could be something I made up, something less gothic. The teacher may have taken me out of class for testing, together with a few other students. Testing is a psychological trip-switch that changes sharply the atmosphere of the everyday classroom. On test day, books get put away, replaced by sheets of multiple choice questions. Everyone holds a sharpened Number 2 pencil. There is that taut silence that comes over a courtroom right before the verdict is read. Guilty, not guilty. Smart, not smart. For me—and for many children—quizzes are a form of interrogation. Stress could explain the ghosts in the broom closet. I repeatedly conjure this image to cope with feelings of intense failure and humiliation. I can hear Freud now: Why, Dr. Kopple, unpleasant memories are the product of an unfulfilled wish originating in childhood of an undoubtedly sexual nature. In other words, because I was often humiliated as a young girl, I grew up to expect and even like being humiliated. Or, perhaps school really was a nightmare for me?
Or rather, the special education classroom. I wasn’t going to be there for long, not if my father had anything to do with it. He would force me to read and write my way out of the broom closet. Mere words would not lock me in. No author was beyond reach. I was getting out. And my father was going to break me out by any means necessary. Not one day in the future but right there and then. By the time he was finished with me, I would be able to read everything from Chaucer to Henry James. I would go from broom closet to the front of the class. My father would see to it. Enough already with the hands-off, gentle approach. He would use the direct method. Sit down, shut up, and read. Zero tolerance for laziness, whining and defiance. I was living under a hyper-totalitarian literary regime. Obedience to authority wasn’t the half of it. Lack of comprehension, mistakes in pronunciation, poor hand-writing skills were no longer tolerated. Let’s just say, my father came down on me like a stack of books.
It was a terrifying apprenticeship. It would be lovely to think that, however awful it was, I discovered that I was brilliant at language. My father may have hoped for such a discovery. But, it was a secondary hope: his primary goal was to prevent the school from having me diagnosed with an intellectual disability. My father grew up in an era in which eugenics made a formidable impact on society. He grew up hearing that society would be so much better off without “imbeciles.” In Georgia, where he was born, eugenics was taught in science class, and in most other states. Marriages between persons deemed “unfit” were illegal. Forced sterilization was a common practice. “No child of mine,” he would say in the grimmest of voices. No child of his would be tossed aside, stigmatized, victimized.
And I wasn’t. Many tears later, combined with a near hatred of my father, I could read. One day, after months of going out of my way to avoid him, he approached me. He had a book in his hand, which certainly didn’t make me happy. “You would like this,” he said. The book happened to be Alice in Wonderland. It was the first book I read cover to cover on my own. I read it not once, not twice, but over and over. To this day, I can still recite The Jabberwocky. After that, I no longer read for my father. The dead page—messy with words too long, too short, too many—came alive. Now, I read out of curiosity and for the joy books gave me. Reading, as Jorge Luis Borges once said, was a kind of paradise.
Things got better at school. My teachers never saw me as much of an achiever. I was no longer seen as a slow learner. Teachers now considered me lazy. I remember my high school biology teacher turned to me once and said: “You will never use half your brain.” Oddly, I took it as a compliment. It takes some intelligence to get by on half a brain.
So, I got by, and at times quite well. Talking books one day, I remarked to a friend from college that I was reading Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. She grew serious, pausing before she explained that books like Dr. Faustus were not simply read; they were taught. According to her, I was in over my head. But, I made it through. Whether I emerged a better writer for it, I have no idea. Mann is a hard act to follow.
Particularly, for someone like me. Words still turn into pictures. I have a true knack for staring into space. My hand-writing is about as legible as a doctor’s prescription. Putting words to paper is like pulling back a dark curtain only to find another dark curtain behind it until I begin to see what it is I am working on. It’s always been this way. I was born like this. To write my way out of the dark.