What compels me to write? Do I believe I have a story to tell or a new way to express an old feeling? Perhaps – or not. But I do know I am driven, moth to flame, lover to beloved, by a passion for my mother tongue.
I do not remember not “knowing” words. I don’t mean just recognizing spoken words – but knowing the forms words take, the shafts and curves and colors of their letters. I do not remember a time that I could not read. Yet, I doubt that I sprang fully literate from the womb. There must have been some sort of learning arc.
Somewhere on that arc, very early on, I discovered that all letters had colors. Lovely, shimmering colors – dull boring colors – colors that spoke of stillness or music or riots in the streets. In pre-school I informed my teacher, quite emphatically, that she had used the wrong color to spell the word bluebird. She was patient and kind. I was bratty and opinionated!
Obnoxious or not, I really did want to share my letters and their colors – to explain how they affected me and why I loved specific words. My grandmother, a woman whose Yorkshire-isms littered her speech, pronounced me a bit daft. However, my colors would not be denied. Every new word arrived with form and function and its own tincture:
Rambunctious – a roaring red letter of a word with its feet firmly anchored in an earthy C
Muse – a lovely rose-colored word quickly fading to its soft yellow sibilant
Opalescence – a visual onomatopoeia of pearls and early light
As a young child I longed to marry the word and its meaning to its colors. And I puzzled over foreign languages. Did the French find the rain to be more playful than the English did? The English rain evoked Norse war gods running amok. And why would the Americans want to drop the pretty little silver U from colour? It would be many years before I found out that I was blessed with a mild, and not uncommon, crossing of the senses. I was thrilled to know that I wasn’t quite so ‘daft’ after all, that there were others like me – I was crestfallen to learn that very likely all their colors would be quite different. I had best restrict myself to form and function and sound if I wanted to write coherently.
Happily, it was the sound of words that filled our home – not just the come, go, yes, no that move the day along, but all the wonderful words that literature employs to tell our stories back to us. In the evenings, with children in bed and the house gone quiet, our parents sat in the living room and took turns – one read aloud while the other darned socks and after half an hour they traded roles. My father, in particular, read with a natural gift for expression. This was our cradle song, the muted patterns of the words and the inflections of the voices drifted up the stairs: a spoken lullaby.
It was my father who brought literature into our home and it was my father who considered le bon mot the highest form of art. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations held pride of place in the hallway bookcase, and the King James Bible was a deity unto itself. I was not often read to as a child because I was impatient to read it myself but I confess to a little twinge of envy when I sat on the bottom stair, listening as my father read “The Cremation of Sam McGee” to my six-year old sister. I wanted to be singled out for something that special – that introduction to funny, clever words.
All these years later, my romance goes on apace. I glory in my lover’s tangled Teutonic unruliness, I am beguiled by its ancient genesis on the Carpathian steppes and I’m even grateful that the odious, conquering Normans overlaid our native speech with lovely French. And still, mostly in solitude, I roll a color over my tongue. Salacious. Sulpician. Nonsensical and Lilliputian. Yellow words. Grass-green words. Delicious words that fill me up.
So far I have been more voyeuse than participant in this kindly, boisterous group of Red Wheelbarrow Writers and I’m struggling for the confidence to share what I write. I come to Happy Hour and listen to courageous writers reading from their works. Some of those writers are polished and experienced, with works already published; some are just learning their craft. All are determined and brave and inspire me to reclaim the life I envisioned as a child.
Judy Shantz grew up on the freezing/scorching Canadian prairie but always longed for a more gentle clime; preferably one with the scent of roses and salt sea in the air. Her first full-length novel, The Case of the Flickering Flashlight, was written at the age of nine and accepted by her loving parents with amazement and scarcely-disguised laughter. Her adult writings fill notebooks, spill out of files, cover cocktail napkins and the backs of grocery lists and her association with Red Wheelbarrow Writers is providing the inspiration to add flesh and feathers and fancy pants to all those characters waiting to be heard.