No life has all the lovely things. Each choice we make moves us toward one thing and away from another. I chose to spend my time fully writing stories and walked away from a career that could have brought me riches. I chose to write about the love of two women and left others to woo the larger market. I chose to live out as a lesbian and associations and opportunities were lost. I have never wanted a different life although from time to time not having this and that has brought tears to my eyes on a quiet night. No life has all the lovely things.
I had a near melt-down the other night and wrote an angry letter to my deceased mother and father in my journal. I have spent a lifetime trying to heal my anger toward them.
Spiritual work and psychotherapy have helped but haven’t been the miracle I probably need. Most days I feel I have rooted out my anger and forgiven Mother’s insistence that I be other than I am and Dad’s cowardliness, letting her speak for him. But too many days, I get lost in the pain of the past and return to the darkness of the victim. I marvel at the people who have suffered far greater than I and seem to be living without bitterness, with light hearts.
When I am drawn back into the drama of the past that apparently I have not finished arguing over, I use my wild energy to do something productive, outdoor work, back-braking work, pulling weeds from the white shell that surrounds the house where I live. Or I release my anger in my journal, or through a character in a story, or in a letter to a friend,
It is a rare occasion when I am able to sit or stand in the anger and let it, like a river, run through me.
I am sure I became a writer to save my soul, declaring who I am, what I feel, and how I see things on a sheet of paper.
I wonder will I ever be able to transcend, rise above, center myself so that nothing at all is needed from me, for me?
In the meantime I write it down and writing it down becomes the river to the sea.
I was in the slow readers’ circle in third grade and thus, at an early age, I was seen as the slow student in my family and, by way of that, I believed I was not smart. Even while on the honor roll in secondary school and earning above a 3 point in college, I was anxious that I might fail a class and later flunk out of Ohio State. I accepted the explanation for my successes, that I was clever and had fooled some people.
Orientation Week at Ohio State the incoming freshman were seated together in the auditorium and directed to look at the person seated to our right and to our left. One of us, we were told, would not be around come spring quarter. I was sure the one on my left and the one on my right were, like my sister and brother, smarter than I and that I would be the one who would flunk out of Ohio State.
Therefore, when I had a vision of myself, writing a book, I didn’t take it seriously. I was sitting backstage at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. I was 34 years old. After graduating from OSU with an associate degree in dental hygiene and cleaning teeth for five years, I moved to NYC to study at Stella Adler’s Conservatory of Acting. I held a variety of low paying, part-time jobs while a student and going out on auditions. After a short stint in an off-Broadway production of Spoon River, I left the city and returned to OSU to finish course work for my bachelor’s degree and earn a graduate degree in a combined program of communications and health education. I then moved to San Francisco to look for work in educational television and landed instead backstage at the Curran Theatre.
It was a Wednesday, a matinée day. I was sitting on a stool by the stage door while the crew and actors were out on dinner break before the second, evening, show. The only other person in the theatre besides me was the sound man, doing his sound check. I had my eyes closed, listening to the music, when the vision came. It was not a dream; I wasn’t asleep. Not a daydream either because I wasn’t fantasizing. In a trance-like state, I saw pages of a book turn slowly, like the pages of a calendar turn in an old movie to signify the passage of time. Before a page turned I was able to read what was written on it. I knew the story. It was the story of my romantic relationship with a woman who, for 7 years led me to believe she was someone other than she was.
By some strange understanding, it dawned on me I’d glimpsed my future, but I laughed at the scene. To avoid writing a paper for my master’s degree, I had taken extra courses and exams. I was not a writer. Writing was the last thing I would imagine myself doing. The dream-like event could not have been generated by me. Nonetheless, I had the strange sensation that the book I’d been shown had already been written by me and I had only to catch up to my future.
Nah, I told myself, that’s crazy. The whole thing is nuts, I thought. The trance, the vision, the forecast of my future. However, the feeling that the book already existed someplace, in some time, remained. For weeks, I was haunted by the vision and the sensation that it was real over time grew stronger and did not fade.
What the hell, I finally said to myself, and I got a pad of lined paper and some # 1 pencils to begin writing backstage. Exactly then, the instant I wrote my first word, sitting in the small booth just inside the stage door, I knew I would do that the rest of my life. Writing would be my work, my passion, my teacher and my salvation.
Six months later when the management of the Curran Theatre switched hands, I lost my job and from that day forward, I became a full-time writer, teaching myself how to write, following the punctuation in the dialogue of a Steinbeck novel in order to see where to place the commas, periods and quotation marks. It was 1978. My first novel was published two years later.
The lesson to not let anyone tell me who I was nor what I could or couldn’t do took some time to learn. It didn’t come as quickly or easily as my declaration.
This website and blog, which was offered to me in early February, is a new fangled thing for me and I have been both amazed and intimidated by it at times. When I began writing 35 years ago, I wrote longhand with pencils on lined paper, and afterward transcribed chapter by chapter on a manual typewriter. Back then in San Francisco, at an afternoon party, a young man tried to sell me on the notion that writing on a computer was not only the wave of the future but by far a more efficient and versatile way to write. I was not convinced. I believed the manner in which I wrote, because it was slow and elementary, facilitated my writing. I was sure the slowness and quiet made it possible for my authentic voice to emerge. I was not a proficient typist and hunting for keys on a typewriter broke my concentration and pulled my focus away from that inner voice. Years later, I did purchase an electic typewriter which made my transcribing less work, but I continued to write the original in longhand with a #1 soft pencil. I don’t know that a #1 pencil can even be found today.
After many more years, I purchased my first personal computer. Still I wrote in longhand first and transcribed on the computer as I had on the IBM Selectric. I appreciated the ease with which I could correct a misspelling, add and subtract a word, and edit paragraphs. Wow, I said to myself, this is slick. Gradually, I found myself cutting corners, editing on the computer, and more and more, I began to write original sentences at the computer. Eventually, I was writing on the computer with the ease that I once wrote long hand on lined paper and with that, I set my pencils aside in a coffee tin to be plucked out and used only when I had a hard copy to proof. Gradually, I became a better typist, no longer the 13-year-old in typing class who sat in the row in front of my best friend whose typewriter would give two and three rings to my one, the signal it is time to throw the carriage.
Now, nearly 60 years later, having just published my fourth novel, I am writing a blog on my website. For several weeks I have been teaching myself Mac’s Pages because in the past I used Microsoft’s Word, and teaching myself the WordPress application that is needed to write this blog.
I still have my sliver-blue manual typewriter with white keys. It sits on a shelf in what I call my writing room but where I no longer write. It is in the room where my desk, that I no longer sit at, stands before a wall of black and white photographs that will become familiar to readers of my next book. That manual typewriter, made of steel, is German and has a name. It is Torpedo. It is heavy the way an actual torpedo in the belly of a war ship is heavy. It would do terrible damage where it to fall off the shelf and land on my bare foot or even on a shoed foot. Worse than having no mechanical means to correct misspellings and the necessity to slap and push the carriage at the end of each line, worse than those two requirements of a manual typewriter is the effort required to strike a key down hard enough that the steel character will mark through the inked ribbon onto the sheet of paper wrapped around the rubber paten. Oh, my, the force that is needed to accomplish that miracle of typing and the stamina to do it thousands of times over and over again along 200 pages. The difference between the Torpedo and my MacBookAir is like the difference between a horse and buggy and my Mazda Miata.
I have never forgotten the young man who advocated the computer, but for a far more serious reason than his report to me that it was the wave of the future. One day not long after my meeting him, he disappeared and no one, not family or friends, heard from him. Weeks later his car was found parked near a body of water. For years his friends speculated about his disappearance, but to my knowledge, the mystery has never been solved. When something is missing in a story I am writing that has not yet dawned on me, I will often wake in the middle of the night to the realization. Some nights I am suddenly awakened by the awareness that the young man is missing still, and I mourn for him and his family and friends. It is easy to solve problems in fiction, to add what is missing, to rewrite until the story rings true.
Today, right now, at this moment, I lie on my sofa with my legs stretched out and my computer on my lap. I no longer use pencil or pen or need a desktop for support or even a room inwhich to write. I need only this clam shell and a seat on the porch, in an airplane, on a train, or in a friend’s house. Tonight I am doing what the young man knew I would do.
“This is a story about a little girl who is different from the rest of the little girls. Instead of dolls, she likes basketballs, footballs, and baseball Instead of dresses, she likes a cowboy costume and also solving mysteries like her heroine, Nancy Drew. [Abby] is slowly becoming one of my favorite characters.”
“When I First Knew has stolen my heart!!!!!!!”
“[When I First Knew] is a journey book, as I see it, and that appeals to everyone, especially when Abby/Archie says near the end of the story, “I’m glad I’m exactly who I am!” The book is almost a nod to the Labors of Hercules, though Abby carries a football and a forest-green velvet coat, not a club and a lion-skin!… There’s not a living person it doesn’t “speak to.” That open, plain speaking voice is pretty rare…think Huck Finn, imbued with a reasonable hope, not foolish illusions, even in a 12-year-old.”
Linda W. Hobson, former Executive Director,
North Carolina Writers’ Network
“I love everything about this book… I could quote this entire book, there is just so much I could empathize.”
Elliot Kriss of Elk’s Library
“I love a book which has a statement to make… This is one of those books that you have to read. I recommend [When I First Knew] to both the adult audience as well as the young adults and teenagers. Frankly, at times, I was reminded of Anne Frank and the classic To Kill A Mockingbird.”
Ishita Chakrabortty of UnderratedReads
When I First Knew by Joan Alden
Quotes and Excerpts from the Book – Part 9:
“I wanted to hate him but he was so handsome in his shiny dark suit and wavy black hair… When he shook my hand he gave me a firm grip that made me feel proud and flattered. Still I know things that keep me from being swept off my feet. I biked home thinking it is easy to be nice when you have a big office with a waterfall.”
“I was surprised that she smiled when she saw me and I decided then and there that no matter what she said after reading my note, I would always be glad I was born the way I am.”
“It wasn’t easy for me to accept the real Daniel because I had wanted him to be perfect, but it’s easier to be friends with someone who isn’t perfect.”
When I First Knew by Joan Alden
Quotes and Excerpts from the Book – Part 8:
“Kit gave me a sad look that made me doubt myself afterwards, but when I stepped into math class two hours later and Marty smiled at me, I forgot all about Kit’s hurt feelings.”
“I told her [Marty] that I had worn it [the teepee t-shirt] under everything even under my Sunday dress and she didn’t laugh. I think that is because she knows how it is to have to hide who you are.”
In 1996 when my partner, a photographer, died, I stopped writing everything but letters to her, and I turned to painting. I pasted her black and white prints to canvases and hand tinted them, then extended the oil paint beyond the photos onto the canvas where I created scenes for the photos. I did this work for several years, all the time missing my writing life, missing living in my imagination. And I experienced some guilt for not giving writing a more determined try. I worried I was becoming creatively lazy. I was too hard on myself for sure, but as the years passed, fifteen in all, in which I didn’t write, I stopped thinking of myself as a writer and stopped telling people I was a writer and that had its own sadness, the loss of some part of who I was, or who I had thought I was. I taught writing five of those years and that had its rewards, but I am an introvert by nature, and too much social activity exhausts me. Teaching at The Citadel required more than a little of that. Some writers complain of the solitude necessary in order to write. That particular aspect is one of my favorites. Thus it was that I did return to writing and today with a new book out and another in the waiting dock, I turned back to a play I began years ago as a novel, converted into a play, then back into a narrative, and now ‘am converting back into a play. Some say it helps to write a work several ways. I hope that is how I feel when I am finally finished with After the Dance, my nod to Miller’s After the Fall.
When I First Knew by Joan Alden
Quotes and Excerpts from the Book – Part 7:
“I wanted to tell him I had been feeling discouraged lately about not being able to do certain things because I was a girl. I knew I wouldn’t be playing football like the boys in high school let alone college and the pros. It didn’t matter how natural I was at football, I wasn’t going to play on a team and be coached. Wearing a uniform and running onto a field with cleats on was a fantasy of mine and wouldn’t ever be anything but that.”
“Daniel smiled but not the broad, happy smile he gives me when we greet or the proud smile when I catch one of his passes. It was a smile that almost looked sad if that is possible. There was sadness in his eyes. And in his voice when he told me what I can never tell anyone.”