So, I write this weekly column for Small Town Newspaper, as you know because I post the columns here every Monday. I'm hardly a celebrity around here, but my name gets out there, and sometimes good things happen because of it. A cashier at the grocery store will ask, "Hey, aren't you that lady who writes in the paper? I like what you say." The butcher in the same store has asked for my autograph because he thinks someday I'll write for TIME, and he wants to be able to say he knew me when. And sometimes I get nice mail or phone calls from strangers telling me how much they appreciate my columns.
Well, a couple of months ago, the new librarian of Small Town's library asked if I'd conduct a little creative writing event for teenagers as part of his new program for teens. He's a fan of my columns and thought I could offer some inspiration. I could find no reason to say no to that invitation, so we met yesterday afternoon in the Community Room and talked writing. There were only six teenagers—one boy and five girls, one of which was only there because she works there and goes to all the programmed events. She'd never written a thing before and could care less. OK.
As was asked of me, I spent a few minutes talking about how I write and how I came to have a column in the newspaper. I answered a few questions about how I choose subject matter and how I go about the business of writing—where do I sit, do I use a laptop, etc—and then I spent the rest of the time making the kids write a 250-Word version of Blogville's 500-Word writing exercise. I had chosen three sentences from books ahead of time and gave them a choice. They could choose from To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher In the Rye and Life of Pi, and they had 30 minutes.
Their stories were remarkably good, purely fictional they claimed and well thought out for being so spontaneous. They wrote about the anguish of lost love, hating sports in a sports-minded family and being thrown from a horse (written by someone who'd never ridden before). One girl wrote a first-person account as a boy holding the hand of a girl he really liked, and it was very convincing.
Most of them read their stories out loud (all but the girl who didn't care about writing), and I was so impressed, it didn't bother me in the least that we ran out of time before I read mine. My story paled in comparison. I would like to do this sort of thing again because in that setting at that table with those funny and enthusiastic kids, I was only the focus for a few minutes. If we were to meet again, that wouldn't be the case so much, and we could just inspire each other to write something interesting.
Here's the thing I wrote on the spot, probably slightly over 250 words, using a sentence from Mockingbird.
I couldn't wait to rip into the package. The box had just arrived, and I was eager to get my hands on this so-called self-help book that would help me overcome my fears. and I had plenty of fears to overcome, let me just say that right now.
There were the usual—spiders, snakes, public speaking. Heights didn't bother me as much as the tug of gravity I felt when I would look down from way up there, so that was another one.
My mother was afraid of water because she witnessed her own mother's near drowning once, so she never took me to the pool or the lake. I didn't learn to swim until my ninth-grade P.E. class with a requirement—swim the length of the Olympic-sized pool or fail. So, I swam. I also flailed and choked on chlorinated water and kept my eyes on the clock as I counted down the minutes to the next class period.
The summer right after that school year, my neighbors got a pool, and they invited me over to try it out. The deep end gave me hives, but the shallower end, no more than waist deep, was a place I could spend the entire month of July, I decided. That was before they installed the diving board.
All the other neighborhood kids lined up to jump from the thing, and I was urged to be next. To jump into the deep end. To plunge to my death. I would not fail any test, but I was challenged, so I took my spot on the tip of the flimsy board. My toes gripped the edge. I took a deep breath, and I dropped with my fingers pinching my nose.
I felt my feet touch the bottom of the pool, and I pushed off toward the light from above, moving too slowly, I believed, and losing control. Ground, sky and houses melted into a mad palette, my ears throbbed, I was suffocating, I was sure. But then my head broke the surface of the water, and I could breathe. Never again, I told myself, and I had not been back in the water since.
This new book, with all of its promises about fear conquering, was my last option. My hope as I ripped off the cellophane wrapper was that its pages would show me how to let go of this nonsense and how to jump off the deep end and breathe steady doing it.