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Thirty-three years ago I broke a promise. I told a friend leaving for the summer that I would write to her. Six weeks later I faced her accusing smile, digging for excuses. Instead, I shoveled myself into an epic act of atonement; in penance I would deliver a one-hundred-page letter.
I strapped myself to the task, determined to grind out every page, to pay for my omission and prove to all doubters I could. Starting with profuse and drawn-out apology, I moved on to typical teenage rants and the odd little details of my day. I cheated, too, slipping in a few pages of single words. When that felt dishonest, I plunged back in with true sentences, shaping ideas and dreams into paragraphs. My friend questioned and smiled and waited. Wow, I thought, she really wants to read this thing.
I handed it over, proud because I finished, but also because parts of it were good. It was funny and sometimes deep, and most of all it carried pieces of me. I found I wrote things I couldn’t speak. Wedged deep in all those scribbled and scratched-through words was truth. I think that’s when I sensed the power of words on a page, and the delight in putting them there.
Somewhere between pages one and one hundred, we began to date. Three years later we married. The letter wasn’t an act of wooing; it was a task to complete. Still, it became something more. It remains a part of our story, tucked away in a box. Nobody reads it. I suspect it would embarrass me.
I left college after one year. Now, thirty years later, I’m back, writing a paper assigned by a professor I suspect may be young enough to be my daughter. I spend nine hours a week in class and more than I imagined at home reading and writing. I run a business. I have a family I love, an ailing mother; I belong to a church desperate for workers. Can I really credit—or blame—all this on a letter I scratched out years ago? That seems as awkward as I feel sitting in a class of quick-minded twenty-year olds.
That letter, written for an audience of one, isn’t enough. But it’s a beginning delayed, a dormant seed. It remained a very rough draft, like a seed waiting, a symbol of my writing experience for the past thirty years.
When my father died five years ago, I returned instinctively to writing. There are words better written than said. Thoughts laid out, ordered and pondered, erased or saved. So I write and read. I’ve found fiction works best for me, imagined people and places who help me find the truth. But just like that letter, it’s not enough to write it; I need someone to read it. I imagine that’s why I’m back in school, to learn craft, to hone my voice, but also to find community, hoping through all this to become a writer worth reading.