Like millions of young readers over the past half century, I was enchanted by the pioneer stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I picked up “Little House in the Big Woods” in the second grade and continued to read, and re-read, the stories of Laura, Mary, Ma, Pa, and baby Carrie as they faced hunger, mountain lions, illness, hardship and change. Wilder’s vivid descriptions transported me from the sidewalk suburbia of the 1960s to the dark woods, windswept prairies, and hardships of a hundred years before. In moments of inspiration I wanted to trade my Barbie collection for a corncob doll wrapped in a leftover piece of cloth. Instead of manicured lawns and safety patrols, I wanted to look across the plains and see a cloud of grasshoppers consuming everything in their path.
By the time I was in the fifth grade, the realities of these hardships had counterbalanced my romantic imagination, and I turned my aspirations from BEING like Laura Ingalls Wilder to WRITING like her. Drawing upon my own limited experience, I began my first novel – the story of a young girl, her friends, their improbable adventures and the not-so-unique challenges of navigating the wilderness between childhood and adolescence.
As any writer knows, books are written to be read. I shared my growing collection of chapters with my friends who enjoyed them enough to keep asking for more. Eventually, my teacher heard about my writing and asked if she could read it, too. I shyly handed over my book, the creative work of many weeks. I had sacrificed time with friends, episodes of favorite TV shows, and more than a few flashlight batteries working on my story. My admiration for my favorite authors shone through the pages of my work, but the most obvious influence was that of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Like Ms. Wilder, the meals in my book were described in sumptuous glory; each course presented in elaborate and mouth-watering detail. If such narrative effect worked for her, why wouldn’t it work for me?
I waited patiently to see what Miss Porter, my teacher, would say about my story. One morning, I heard laughter coming from the room where Miss Porter was conducting another section of English. Miss Porter was a sadistic little dumpling of a spinster who ran her classes like a gulag so it was quite unusual to hear signals of merriment leaking through the mint green cinderblock. Clearly, something had caused a breakdown in discipline in Room 5B. At recess, my friends and I gathered in a gossiping bunch, as fifth grade girls are wont to do. As I listened in horror, a friend told how Miss Porter had read excerpts from my story to her class, including ALL of my culinary descriptions. She had laughed hysterically throughout the reading, and concluded by saying that the title of my story needed to be changed to “The Mashed Potato Mountains.” My friends loyally pronounced Miss Porter a bitch and turned their attention to other topics. I stared at the blacktop, where the yellow outlines of the hopscotch grid had chipped and faded, much like my aspirations. I felt humiliated and hollow. Up until then, the adults in my life had been predictable and encouraging. Shame was an unfamiliar and stinging emotion. When Miss Porter wordlessly handed back my story later that afternoon, I felt the blood rise into every capillary from my neck, to face, to ears, to scalp; and I heard the whooshing sound of hot blood in my head. I couldn’t eat mashed potatoes for a long time.
No student can escape the demands of writing, even disgraced former novelists. Through the years, I attracted the attention of English and writing teachers. I was affirmed and encouraged to keep writing. But the muse had been wounded – fat-shamed and silenced under a mashed potato mountain.
I studied accounting in college, earned an MBA and embarked upon a career as a financial executive. Safety in numbers. It wasn’t until I had answered the call of religious vocation that the writer in me started to emerge from under that pile of doubt and shame. The process toward ordination began with the submission of almost fifty pages of written materials – spiritual autobiography, answers to questions on personal history, vocation, theology, and background. With this material in hand, the first question the committee assigned to evaluate candidates for ordination asked me was, “Are you a published author?” Their second question was, “Why not?”
My muse has been dug out, wiped off, and set back on her feet through the encouragement, insight, and tenderness of a company of angels who have refused to allow us to remain muzzled these many years. Professors, parishioners, and publishers who read my work, heard my preaching, and asked for more. Classmates and writing instructors blessed me with the collegiality of healthy and helpful critique and revision. I’m grateful for the gift of maturity and the realization that mockery of the powerless is the basest kind of cruelty. Miss Porter deserves neither voice nor vote in my accomplishments or aspirations. She never did. The muse refuses to be silenced or shamed. She still shows up when I settle down to write. Sometimes we share a snack.