How I Became a Fiction Writer

I have always read voraciously — no, that's too mild a word. I swallowed books whole, ingurgitated them, devoured them like a starving shark who's come upon a raft of shipwreck survivors. I sought to experience every word, every story ever written — especially novels.

I can't remember when that obsession started (probably before I was born), but I can remember when I first fell in love with writing stories. It was the summer between fifth and sixth grades, when I was ten.

That summer my cousin Dian and I spent a week with our grandparents at their summer trailer home near Green Lake in Spicer, Minnesota. Green Lake is a favorite watering hole for Minnesotans, but I haven't retained a single memory of the lake. What I remember instead was the tall prairie grassland surrounding it — but only because of the magic that happened there.

my cousin DianMy cousin Dian was a year younger than me, but far more precocious. She was the most unusual person I knew — even the spelling of her name was different. Something about her turned an ordinary world into one filled with the possibility of magic and excitement.

It was at her home in a Minneapolis suburb where I discovered that weeping willows were not mere trees, but guardians of the fairy worlds hidden beneath their whispering, whispy branches, which always sway so languidly in the wind, no matter how strong it gets, as if to say, "Blow all you want; I can't be bothered to get worked up by a mere wind." We'd part the lawn-caressing branches of her willow and sneak into a world toned spring green, where sun and shade danced a neverending ballet. Under that willow, I could believe in a world where dreams came true, where pesky brothers and sisters would disappear, and where the sun's rays glittered with gold and silver. Where magic could happen.

It was magic I believe Dian created. She was the kind of girl I wished I was, but knew I'd never be — a beautiful sprite with naturally curly blonde hair, a wide full-lipped smile, and blue eyes that sparkled from an inner connection I couldn't have named back then.

Creative! She could turn ordinary Kool-Aid and Ritz crackers into an elegant, black-dress dinner-date at a four-star restaurant; a dollhouse into a universe where people could fly through the air and talk to star beings; a trip to the corner grocery into a journey of discovery that would amaze even Maurice Sendak.

Dian was mysterious, marvelous, curious, creative.

Before that summer week at Grandma and Grandpa's, I had written little, mostly diaries, a "newsletter" modeled after my hero's, Jo of Little Women, and school assignments that were designed to control and restrict the imaginations of us uniformed, parochial-school students. It had never occurred to me that pen and paper could be used to create my own worlds of magic. It had occurred to Dian.

Each morning of that week we spent at Grandma's and Grandpa's, Dian and I were the first ones up and out, scampering off to the prairie-grass world surrounding their trailer court. On the first or second day, we came upon an oasis — a single cottonwood rising above the sea of grass. The tree was old, gnarled and bent, but the only thing that mattered to us was that beneath its limbs was a magical green open space, a fairyland. Standing in that green-gold light, Dian announced, "This is our writing tree." This is where we would write a novel.

"What about?" I asked, feeling breathless with both excitement and fear.

"Well," Dian said, "we just have to pick!" Then she described the Rollodex-like card file in her head. Each card contained a plot, and all we had to do was pick a number, and the card file would spin about and spit out the plot card with that number.

I don't remember the numbers we picked. I do remember saying no to the first few — probably because I was too scared of the whole plan. At last we chose a number whose "card" contained a storyline I could relate to — a teenage girl who wanted more than anything to be Miss America. Bingo!

We ran back to our grandparents' trailer, grabbed several pads of note paper and pens, and raced away again to our writing tree. Our grandmother — one of the most loving people I've ever known — just smiled as we raced by.

Then we began. Dian decided that I, as the older one, should be the scribe, and so I proceeded to write the words we thought up together. By the end of that week, we had completed our first "novel" and started a second.

I felt like I'd found myself, my real family, my home, my true world under that cottonwood bravely rising above the wide prairie as I wrote the words in black ink (yes, I remember the color) on white sheets of scratch pads imprinted at the top with the name and address of my parents' business.

When I got home, I filled countless more of those notepads with "novels," including one that told the story of my parents' courtship, in which my father was an alien from another planet!

tree in sunsetThat magical summer week was the last one Dian and I spent together anywhere. We saw each other a few times on weekends, wrote lots of letters back and forth, but though we talked about it, we never wrote another "novel" together.

As we moved through our high school years and then into college, our separate lives made it more difficult to spend time with each other, and our correspondence grew sparser. After one year of college, Dian quit school to marry a foreign student she'd met at the university and have their baby. I stayed in college, then traveled and worked, all the while vowing never to have children (a vow that was later broken — thankfully!). And I continued to walk (though sometimes so slowly I could have doubled as a deeply rooted tree) on the writing path she showed me.

Dian's life took a dramatically different — and ultimately tragic — path.

Within a few years, Dian and her husband divorced, and he returned to his own country. But then she met and married another man from the same Middle Eastern country as her first husband, and she went with him when he returned to his native land. There, she bore him two sons and a daughter, suffered tremendous physical and emotional abuse, and ultimately had to risk her life to escape back to the United States. She was able to bring one child with her, but the other two were forced to remain behind.

As horrible as that was, the worst was yet to come. She returned with an internal invader — a virus? a parasite? — the medical experts never could identify. Or perhaps the abuse she suffered triggered an abnormal chain of events in her brain. Whatever it was, she came home with a disease that slowly, but inexorably, destroyed her incredible brain and all of its magic, mystery, and creativity.

Dian died at age 40, a "vegetable" in a nursing home, unable even to recognize the two of her four children who live in this country. By the time she died, her parents had adopted her oldest child (from her first marriage), and her youngest child had been placed in a foster home. (He was later adopted by my aunt's best friend and her husband.) To this day I don't know if Dian's other two children truly know what happened to her.

Although many years have passed, I continue to grieve the loss of Dian. I think about her every time I sit at my writing desk. And every time time her memory enters my mind, I give thanks for the incredible gift she gave me that summer week as we wrote under the magic shelter of our writing tree.

Shortly after Dian died, her first-born daughter was married. As I thought about that event, this poem "came" to me:

Dian's Legacy

She danced into my life,
a fairy-cousin with long ringlets
made by her artist-mother,
(a little strange herself, the aunts and uncles said).

Dimpled cheeks, sizzling eyes marked
her contrast with the assimilation-eager
immigrant descendants in our family.
At only nine, she reigned, queen in my kingdom.

At only nine, she enticed me deep
into the waving grasses of the prairie,
behind Grandma's garden, to her secret hideaway,
where a single cottonwood broke the sea of grass.

In a world circled by gold, protected
by laughing leaves of green, she told
me stories, found the stories in me —
still untold, pregnant, lush with secrets and hope,

anxious to fly out of my heart to their paper homes.
In me she saw the spark of something long
buried, barely known, a desperate desire. Her dimples
broke with excitement; she said let's write a story!

I was ten and already narrowed by the life I knew
until that moment, when, like white steam
and red flame the words erupted from my soul
and my spirit poured out into this world.

* * *

Cousin, I dance at your daughter's wedding today
as you taught me to dance,
but with heavier step
because of the heartpains I carry
for you, who cannot dance at all anymore.

Cousin, I delight in the flecks of light
that play on your daughter's veil
of lace so bright and white and sheer.
Today, no country's laws or allah's rules hide
your dimples, alive in your daughter's face.

Cousin, I watch your mother tuck a curled
lock of your daughter's hair behind her veil
and stare deep into her daughter's eyes
where lives still — eternally — your story,
your spirit, you.

Copyright © 1996-2008 by Joan E. Kremer