I began my writing life thanks to some little green men.
One morning, it was spring, I think, Mr. Richard Hawthorne, the only male teacher in the whole of Franklin Elementary School, asked my sixth-grade class to write short stories.
"About anything you want to write, that's it" he told us as he shuffled piles of papers on his old oak desk, as big as a small rowboat. I scrunched down in my seat at the back of the room, aimlessly pushing a pencil across the top of the lined paper in my three-ring binder notebook. My seat mate, Sarah, gnawed the pink eraser at the end of her pencil. We glanced at each other with a look that only best friends share. Today we'd probably say, "WTF," but then we just shrugged.
Sarah's green sweater fit a bit snug across her chest, the white plastic buttons gaping a bit here and there when she raised her shoulders. In that moment, with the flash of green, I knew what my story would be about. The little green men from one of my brother's sci-fi comic books I'd swiped a few days earlier, that's what. In big rounded letters of preadolescence cursive, I painted a word picture of the gleaming steel curves of a space ship manned by green men as tall as my three-year-old baby sister. I made sure to mention the cool reptilian texture of a green man's hand. The real story began when two little girls stepped into the silvery ship, which whisked them off to another planet, one thick with lush jungley plants, ponds burbling with water as clear as glass, and blueberry-dark skies. School didn't exist in that fabled place, because with one intramuscular injection of some mysterious substance, the girls became wise and learned and all-knowing in an instant.
Mr. Hawthorne wrote at the top of the first page of my story, "My wife and I loved your story. Keep writing. A+"
And I tried.
I yearned to live life as defined by Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. I hung onto a tattered copy of Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write through countless moves, from Gainesville, Florida to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and back again. For a long time, I thought of writing as frivolous, because I knew that doing what I loved did not necessarily mean the money would follow. The dollar sign turned out to be my biggest stumbling block. At times, rarely, money exchanged hands. Rejection letters piled up, too. I identified fiercely with a comment that Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Márquez made to his mother, "After all, there are better ways to starve to death [than being a writer]."
It took a daunting bout of illness to wake me up.
I could no longer say, "No, not today. Someday, yes."
In other words, when the surgeon leaned over me in the O.R. and whispered, "Here we go," I stopped being a Someday Writer.
My preferred genre is creative nonfiction, in the form of essays laced with elements of storytelling. I've indulged that tendency in work such as "Why I Write, with Apologies to George Orwell," as well as in many articles and book reviews.
I could spend all my time reading what other people say about the world and what's in it and never write a word about myself, joining the passivity parade of today's technological culture. But if I don't write, I feel a weakness of spirit, a sense of Ennui spreading its wings and enveloping me in a vampiric kiss. I lose my juice, so to speak. On a day when I sit at the keyboard and finish what I start, well, that's a day filled with light, even if clouds strangle the sun and rain bleeds all over everything.Fiction lured me, too. I'm hoarding an as-yet-unpublished novel following the trans-Atlantic journey of an English cunning woman, or witch in the parlance of some:
That night had been a cold one, as a December evening would be in Colchester. She remembered the clip-clop of the horses' hooves, prancing into the village from the fields, their breath frothy and misting in the freezing air. Clutching Old Hortense's grimoire to her chest like a sick child, she'd patted the book of spells from time to time, as if to calm its grief at the death of its mistress. Julian detected an odd odor about it, too, a puzzling fragrance, of what exactly she knew not. It took the shape of a living being, nestled in her arms.As a writer, and avid reader, I seek the telling detail, the lingual equivalent of what French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called the "decisive moment." Such a technique captures the essence of a character or place or an emotion in a flash, creating work that transcends the ordinary.
Those extraordinary little green men, as it turns out, taught me a lot about writing.
It is a lifelong process.
Writer and photographer Cynthia Bertelsen has published essays, book reviews, and photographs, both online and in print. Her book, Mushroom: A Global History, sprouted from her blog, "Gherkins & Tomatoes," while her magical realism novel-in-progress grew from the roots of medieval mysticism and herbal healing. For inspiration, she draws upon her experiences living and working in Mexico, Paraguay, Honduras, Haiti, Morocco, Burkina Faso, and France.