The First Best Christmas

Of all the Christmas gifts I received when I was six years old, one thrilled and excited me the most—a small book with a red faux-leather cover inscribed with gold letters proclaiming “My Diary.” Its pages were gold edged, and a matching golden pencil nestled in a tiny elastic sleeve. Best of all, it had a lock and key to keep my three brothers at bay. On New Year’s Day I wrote my first entry in that diary, a habit I maintain to this day.

After my mother’s death in 2004, I discovered a file in her desk labeled “Susan—Miscellaneous.” In addition to crayoned drawings and home-made Mother’s Day cards, it contained my third-grade report card, on which Miss Wade had indicated my need to improve in three areas: “Pays attention,” “Is truthful” and “Exercises emotional control.”

Perversely, this information about my eight-year-old self pleases me, since I continue to view much of what goes on around me—on TV, on Facebook and Twitter, in idle conversation—as not particularly worthy of  my attention. What novel would I ever have started, let alone finished, if I had “paid attention” to laundry and email and had not allowed my writer’s mind to drift free-range in other worlds? Plus, when taken to the extreme, I think “exercising emotional control” makes for lusterless writing. Isn’t tapping into emotions—my own and my reader’s—the job of a good novelist? And while I applaud “being truthful” in a literal sense, in a literary sense, telling lies is, after all, what fiction writers do.

To my delight the “Susan” file also contained a story I wrote at age six—about Princess Linda, who lived in a tower and spent a lot of time sitting on her “thorne” (a great speller I wasn’t). Reading it, I immediately recognized what this story was—an allegory about me!

No doubt about it, I was Princess Linda—beautiful, brotherless—while the tower was that place of solitude that every writer craves. And the “thorne”on which Princess Linda sat? Clearly it represented the pain-in-the-ass side of being a writer: keeping butt in chair in front of a computer screen for hours every day; leaping out of bed in the middle of the night to jot down a bit of dialogue; having to do book signings and public readings and TV interviews, among myriad other marketing activities, to help sell the book.

I continue the tradition begun that long-ago Christmas by gifting myself with a new journal of my own choosing. It must have a real leather cover, college ruling, and a year’s worth of gilt-edged pages on which to indulge my emotions, tell untruths if I wish, and pay attention only to my own thoughts.

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