I was the fifth child of a couple whose union was accidental—the collision of broken hearts rebounding. My parents were disappointed in each other from the start, neither living up to the other’s expectations. In the way some children will, it seems to me now, I knew my parents were at odds since the moment I was born, or perhaps before. At times, I held my own birth responsible for their troubles. I was one child too many, and I knew it. As a family, we endured thirty-four years of volatility, until their marriage ended in a final blast of accusations by my mother. I was eighteen.
Becoming a published writer was not something I wanted. It was my mother who ordained it. I rebelled at this notion, as I did against any suggestion my mother had for me. What I really wanted was to express myself and be heard. Early on, I took my writing underground, to private journals and poetry. Later, my need to communicate manifested itself in letters never sent.
My earliest essays were long monologues on the human condition, family and friendship, all thorny areas in my childhood. I delivered these rambling examinations nightly to my sleeping sister Karen, who lay serenely oblivious in a matching canopy bed a few feet from my own.
I was a broody child, intensely affected by the dynamics of an unraveling family. When I look back at my earliest self, I see and feel a dusty waif with a snarl of unruly hair and a bottom jaw jutted out in the permanent growl of a bulldog. She is a vision of utter frustration over not being heard, not being taken seriously, not being seen. She jumps up and down on a rusty bedspring in the darkness of the strawberry field, waiting for the moonrise, or rests her chin on a pine bough oozing white pitch, and fires rounds of hatred at the clothing flapping in the laundry yard. I see her with the gnawed top of a blue pen in her mouth. She folds a large piece of torn pink paper, writes a line or two on each face of the page as she folds it again and again.
Being my parents’ child, living in the crosscurrents of their powerful angst, was torturous. I was born hyper-sensitive and I examined every nuance of interpersonal relationship, questioned everything and accepted nothing second hand. I wanted to know for myself. I wanted to talk about everything. I wanted to say how I felt and what I thought, but anything that added passion to the prickly atmosphere in our household was not allowed.
My salvation was to take my voice inward, where an understanding listener was always waiting. I never remember a time when I did not write, or think in prose and poetry. I wrote for myself, to affirm my right to see, to think, to know, to question. In my writing, I gave myself permission to feel hurt and insulted, to think that I had been treated unfairly by girlfriends, and to be angry with older siblings. I allowed myself to disagree with parents, and be in love with older boys, without guilt or blame. This is how I became a writer with the desire to be heard, but without the need for an audience.
I became both a writer and an audience of one.
Over time, my self-expression brought me strength, then healing, and diminished my anxiety over not having had my parents' ear. Through personal writing, I liberated myself from the unhappiness of childhood, survived the birth and placement of my only child with adoptive parents, and in time, overcame alcohol abuse and the need to find answers in sexual relationships. And I kept on writing.
I held my writing close. If no one ever read my words, no one could invalidate me, deny my feelings or refute my take on life. There would be no judges. When life was running smoothly, my writing voice would taper off to a whisper.
Several years ago, in the accidental way my life evolves, I decided I was ready to explore writing beyond the personal, to formally pursue the craft of writing, to exercise my writing voice, out loud. I resolved to share my work with others and enrolled in UCLA Extension Writers' Program. I began working toward a Certificate in Creative Writing with an emphasis on nonfiction. This is where I find myself today, at sixty, in the last weeks of my final course.
In one way, this certificate is merely a marker on a well-posted trail of accomplishments. It will state that I have the discipline to complete at least thirty-six credits in a prescribed line of study. In another, more significant way, it is an important personal milestone, a benchmark of growth. It signifies that I have invited more than a hundred other writers to eavesdrop on my private communications, exposed my most intimate ruminations to critical reading, shared secrets even my own sister doesn’t know. By opening my private musings to complete strangers, I have emerged whole on the far side of a deep fissure.
I am now a writer, ordained not by my mother, but by my own free will and experience, and hard work, and I am still true to my earliest self.
One aspect of being a writer is still missing, or perhaps its time has not arrived, or has already passed without my knowing. I have no sense that there is an audience for my voice, beyond the study of writing, or if I even want such a thing. The closest I can get is to acknowledge that it would be a shame to waste this gift I have. The failure to share what I have learned in the course of becoming a writer seems like an unpardonable crime.
I don’t know where this message is coming from. It may be all the voices of my life combined in one chorus, or accusations I hear in the silence of those who have believed in me, and are gone now. It could be the unavoidable conclusion that age has revealed—that the end of human life is never far off and means eternal silence.
That I could even question sharing my work may be residue from a lifetime of letting go—letting go of the need to have been heard when I was young, letting go of the need for affirmation of thoughts and ideas. It could be that with age I have developed cataracts of the mind, that what was so clear in my youth is now fuzzy.
In my youth, my need to speak and be heard was intense, everything I needed to say was clear, and all of it was important.
I am no longer that ranting child. Perhaps there is nothing left that I need to say, now that I am free to speak in a calm voice, without angst.
Perhaps the necessary audience is beyond reach now, in the cold brine of Buzzard’s Bay where my parents' formidable bones slowly dissolve, while here, in the proximity of my pen, my voice takes on density and weight, and turns to other matters.
Causes Jennifer Pierce Supports
I support the effort of organizations promoting public access and farmland preservation, open space preservation, organic farming and local marketing of...