–by Tyger Burning (Marisa P.C.) in loving memory of Gena N. (1963 – 1996)
Gena N. and me in fifth grade, with some kid in a hat that screams 1970s
Confession #1: I’ve officially written only TWO of the days of the Writer’s March. That means putting words on the page. As usual, I’ve done a lot of work in my head, but that’s not what the March is about.
Confession #2: I agreed to write this post several days ago. As usual, I crafted it in my head. It was wonderful. It was about a recent hike I went on with my friends and how I didn’t finish it but didn’t feel bad about it. I was going to make it into a metaphor about writing, sort of.
Confession #3: I wrote this post last year for Writer’s March, but it wasn’t used. I hope it’s of use to you now. Maybe it will be of use to me in these last days of the march. (By the way, the photos are today’s additions.)
Hello from Marisa! How is your march going? Today’s post is intended to encourage those of you who may be struggling to keep up with your goals and to inspire all of you to remember the early inspirations in your writing life.
me in third grade
The first half of third grade was coming to a close, and I had just turned eight. We’d been working on multiplication tables, cursive handwriting, and the proper use of ballpoint ink. I don’t remember what we studied in English, only that my teacher, Mrs. Zettel, taught us how to write poems. They had a bouncing meter and a strong dependency on rhyme. I wrote my first poem in rhyming couplets. It was an eight-line masterpiece titled “December”: “December reminds me of red and green. / It also reminds me of Christmas string.” I meant “tinsel,” but “tinsel” didn’t rhyme. “It reminds me of Santa Claus / and how he makes such a ho-ho pause.” I didn’t know what a “ho-ho pause” was; the important thing was that “pause” rhymed with “Claus” and “ho-ho” was, obviously, an onomatopoeia representing Santa’s laughter. I remember the rest of the poem too, but I trust you get the picture: Its reliance on rhyme was wreckage to image and accuracy.
At eight, I didn’t still believe in Santa. But Christmas was coming, we wouldn’t have to go to school for a few weeks, there would be decorations and presents, and that was what was on my mind when we were assigned our first poem. I don’t remember anyone else’s poem. I do remember how much everyone else loved mine, though. Mrs. Zettel, of all people, loved my poem! She was a strict, paddle-wielding teacher who rarely smiled. She often wore an avocado-colored dress that raised up to reveal her girdle whenever she wrote on the chalkboard. She was a stout woman who pinned her graying hair in a swirl atop her head. She seemed old. She may not have been. But Mrs. Zettel, she raved about my poem.
Mrs. Zettel with a rare smile, not looking so old after all
All my classmates loved my poem. Most important among them was Gena N., my first love. (She looked like Barbara Feldon/Agent 99 in Get Smart!, I swear it to this day. A lifelong fan of my writing, Gena N. also read my first novel during study hall our senior year of high school.) Anyway, it was also important that my parents and grandparents saw greatness in my poem. Writing those eight lines was the only thing I’d ever done in the whole of my life that made everyone lavish praise upon me.
Gena N., out of focus, but looking decidedly like Agent 99!
The next year I won the fourth-grade poetry contest, and Mrs. Bullard took me to hear Elizabeth Spencer read. Our class made books — mimeographed, stapled affairs — of our poetry and drawings. One of my poems was about springtime. It mostly rhymed. In fifth grade I continued to meet with success for my seasonal writing; my poem “The Year Is Here” (about Thanksgiving) was published in the local newspaper. That year I also wrote and illustrated my first book, The Golden Pond, during lulls in class; it was about Jesus’s second coming and his deep despair over pollution. I probably plagiarized an anti-littering commercial that was popular at the time, but I forgive myself because that was before I knew what plagiarism was.
In short, at school I was becoming known as a “writer.” And my family still supported my work. I wrote a poem about our pet cat, Fat Cat, and won a local poetry contest with “Butterfly,” about a monarch who met its death when it fell prey to a crow. When my great-grandmother died just before my ninth birthday, I wrote a poem called “Granny.” (“Granny was a good old soul. / She lived to be quite old.”) I used my finest penmanship and wrote its seven lines with the faintest of pencil strokes. That last line, standing alone with no rhyming couplet, may symbolize my grief, or perhaps it marked a Coleridgean inability to finish. When I handed it to my grandmother, she cried and cried. That poem made her so happy. She quoted it often.
It’s true that puberty made a mess of my poetry — I suddenly found concrete images expendable and replaced them with tortured, abstract emoting — but I’m not writing this post to supply a history of my writing. Instead, I mean to pay tribute to those earliest positive influences on my writing — in particular to Mrs. Zettel and Gena N. — and I wish to encourage you to think about yours. Who has been most supportive to you along the way? What are your earliest good memories of writing? Who and what inspired you? What did you write about?
P.S. I would like to thank Sam, creator of the Writer’s March, for being another voice of inspiration. Thanks, Sam!
me and Sam, still in school