Writing on the walls (or, why I write)

If you asked me when I knew that I wanted to be a writer, I’d be able to provide you with a rehearsed answer almost immediately.  It started in the third grade when our teacher told us to write a poem about our favorite color.  Mine was about the color green, a color I was so obsessed with that I owned lime green wedge sneakers and varying shades of green eyeliner. At my request, my mom even painted my childhood bedroom a garish pastel green.  The teacher loved my ode to green so much that she hung it up in the classroom for several weeks, and my mother had it professionally printed, stenciled in some green leaves, and framed it.  It hung on the wall of my grandparents’ dining room for years. From that day forward, I had decided that writing was the reason I was alive, a passion I elevated above all else. Even at the age of nine, I perceived it as a higher calling than my family, my cat, and my growing collection of chubby-limbed American Girl dolls. My priorities have shifted, but even today if you asked me to choose between true love and writing, I might have a hard time deciding.

But this cute little anecdote doesn’t really get down to the heart of it. The truth is that we rarely stumble into something like writing--it's not a pothole, it's a merging of paths.

A conversation at work made me realize that there is something much deeper that motivates writers beyond simply discovering that you like it, or that you have a knack for it, or that you can have your work stenciled and framed (and someday, if the agent deities smile upon you, published). 

To answer the question of why I really write, I first had to answer the question of what subject matter I'm passionate about. Someone asked me why I worked with immigrants and refugees, and why I care so much about these groups of people and continue to teach English.

I told them I just fell into it, that I’d started tutoring as extra credit for a fiction workshop in college.

No, the other person said.  Go deeper.  Why does this work matter to you?

And that’s when I realized this all winds back to another story I heard often as a child. I didn't create it or experience it, but I inherited it. The only way to truly understand this story was to reimagine it as my own.

Popular thought in psychology has shifted--there is now the belief that trauma is hereditary. Trauma can be passed down like flat feet or freckles--it can manifest itself with the same likelihood as a short temper, alcoholism, or a dislike of canned tuna fish. 

I share my hereditary trauma with practically anyone who’ll listen.  This trauma makes me feel as though my family has proven itself to society somehow, and that we’ve earned everything we have. I feel belittled when people remind me of how many other stories like this one exist. I get it. I really do. Too many retellings of the same trauma lead to public apathy. Disinterest. Exhaustion with your unoriginality, as though trauma is a fiction you invented.

I often wonder why I’m the only grandchild who shares this story so eagerly, why I’m the one who always says “I’m American, but my family is from Poland.”  I like to think it’s because “I’m the one who’s supposed to remember,” but I probably shouldn’t give myself that much credit.  More likely, I just get so mired in the past that it’s hard for me to just say, with no addendum, “I’m American.”  I prefer to say “I’m American, but…”

Here's the abridged version of why I really write. Here's the story I didn't invent that led to all the ones I did:

My mother, aunt, and grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1967.  Grandpa had been blacklisted by the Communists, and things looked pretty grim for my mom and aunt ever attending university under the Iron Curtain.

They spent two weeks on a boat, gawking at ice bergs and polar bears and waving to the distant coast of England.  They arrived in Canada, passing through Montreal right in time for the World Expo.  From there, they made their way to the suburbs of New Jersey via NYC.  My mom tells me how sticky Times Square was, how she ran her hand along the handrails of the subway station and it came back covered in pretzel salt and gum (ok, maybe that part hasn’t changed much). It wasn’t the sleek tourist spot that it is today.  You couldn’t get photo-ops with naked cowboys and people dressed in Statue of Liberty costumes. Not yet.

My family settled in Bloomfield, New Jersey.  My mom started 8th grade armed with approximately 8-10 English words .  There was no such thing as ESL support—it didn’t exist yet.  Instead, the teacher plopped a formidable-looking copy of The Odyssey on my mom’s desk.  The only concession to my mom’s predicament was that her teacher allowed her to read the Clif notes instead (I don't think Clif notes existed yet, but I'll allow my mom this one artistic license).  She took the SATs before she’d fully learned the language, thrust into the American education system without the slightest idea of how it worked.

My grandma worked for two and a half dollars per hour as a dental assistant.  Her employer coerced her into doing the same complex dental procedures she had done as an actual dentist in Poland without compensating her for her skills.  I’m not really sure what my grandfather did during this time, but I know that the United States wasn’t at all what he’d expected. Even into my teens, I overheard many conversations on the phone between my grandfather and my Polish cousin--a techno fanatic with a love of electric pianos and expensive cologne--in which he said, Don't leave. Stay there. Trust me.

But it’s not all a sob story.  They all learned fluent English.  They all got good jobs (ironically, all four of them at one point worked for the same pharmaceutical company).  My mom and aunt went to college.  They married Americans.  Their children wouldn’t learn Polish, but they’d all have a keen palate for homemade pierogi and poppy seed bread.  They’d love opening presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning, and they’d know the Polish words that mattered:  Hello, how are you?  Sit down.  Be careful.  Shit!

But childhood meals at my grandparents always had a very sobering effect on me.  My grandfather liked to share stories of his time during the war while he sipped plain, scalding-hot water.  I drank tea and ate way too many sweets as he told me about being a German-born Pole with dual citizenship. I ate second helpings of soup and consumed cheesecakes and gingerbread cookies to occupy my hands while he talked, and still he would not be finished telling me about how he was imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis when he refused to join the German forces. 

Later, he would escape from a train carrying him to another prison.  He would join the Polish Underground and eventually forge fake documents that helped Jews escape.  There were other, darker parts to him that he’d never shared: the people he’d initially blamed for the conflict, who were often the people he’d later come to save. The people he'd killed. The time he may have spent in a concentration camp, never uttered aloud, but hinted at in private conversations.

My grandfather’s refrain was always the same.  Never forget.  He would clutch my hands between his, the big knuckles rougher and flatter than most from being smashed by his torturers. 

I typed up all seventeen pages of this history for a speech he was to give at the Polish Consulate office in New York. My mom had translated it, and as the only one in the house who knew the home row keys, I was assigned the task of typing it. I revered that text because it was a seemingly simple answer to why my family was here and what they'd left behind.

He stood before the podium at the Consulate and talked about what it was like to survive on 300 calories a day. He told us that a baby's head looked like a watermelon when smashed against a car door. College students took half-hearted notes, nodded, and shook his hand, visibly disappointed. They wanted to hear about Auschwitz, to know the stench of the ovens and showers and burial pits, but that's not what they got.

It didn't matter in the end, because my grandfather always commanded an audience, and was willing to strong-arm his listeners into internalizing his words. No matter his audience's reaction, he had mastered storytelling as a performance art.

His finest moments were when we were alone, his eyes blazing and teary, his hands shaking. I became the primary recipient of his war history perhaps by circumstance (I was the baby of the family, and I also lived closer than my cousins) or perhaps because he wanted to shape the next storyteller of the family. 

I like to think it's no accident that my Ode to Green hung next to the head of the dining room table where my grandfather always sat, nestled right beside his carefully sunned and fanned orchids. My words needed tending to, some careful rotations in the sun and a few spritzes of water. My grandfather would repeat his story again and again--emphasizing different facts and adding details he'd forgotten. Most people found this repetition insufferable; I did not. The cyclical nature of our conversations spoke to our shared obsession for pruning--although I've killed every plant I've ever owned, I know how to keep words alive and what kinds of pots they go in and how much darkness they can handle (I also know when to kill a metaphor. Yup, this one's done. I beat it to death).

When my grandfather died, his orchids died with him, but the poem remained on the wall. It would stay there until the house was sold, right around the time that I started writing my first novel.

So, I guess the answer to "why do I write?" has more to do with the color green than I thought. Unfortunately, green is no longer my favorite color--I settled on cobalt, because it's way too boring and common to say blue. I wish I could abridge my "why write?" answer into a single platitude, but I can't. This is the long-winded answer I give from here on out (I'm going to be a hit at social gatherings, I can already tell...).