Though at the time I felt normal and ordinary enough, looking back at my childhood I can see that in some ways I led a very un-ordinary life. For example, it was not, I discovered later, a usual thing for a girl of eleven to desperately want a thesaurus.
I discovered it first on the shelves of the junior high library: a thick, blue cloth-bound volume, Roget’s Thesaurus. In it were many words I had never seen before–wonderfully pretentious, ostentatious words, all tidily arranged under headings of quite ordinary, common words. By looking up an ordinary word, I could find a wealth of exotic, ginger-scented replacements for these tasteless, colorless ones. Why would I ever again use the word “calm” if I could replace it with “repose”? Why choose a lackluster “confusion” if “cacophony” by its very sound conjured up two brightly colored parrots fighting in a cage?
And so daily, during library time, I would pull that book from the shelf, leaf through the stiff and to this point unthumbed pages and mouth the words to myself. Before long, I knew that these stolen moments would not suffice. I must have my own copy, to perch on my own narrow ledge across the top of my slanted desk at home. It became the key item on my birthday list, the most hoped-for gift.
What my mother meant for a delicious surprise was ruined by the librarian, who announced to me one day, a month or two later, that “the thesaurus your mother ordered has arrived. Could you tell her that for me?” I still remember the sensation of the excited leap in my throat, the twist in my stomach that marked my anticipation. Still, my agony was to be prolonged some weeks further, for, to salvage a bit of the suspense, my mother picked up the book and kept it concealed for the unending, plodding days until my birthday.
But then, there it was: my own blue-bound volume, complete with crisp dust jacket and unmarked frontispiece, awaiting the affixing of my “Miss Colleen Huston” address label with the silhouetted pine trees. Day after day, I would pluck it from its shelf on my desk and insert its thrilling, foreign words into my writing, startling, I was sure, my English teacher with the breadth of my vocabulary and never once considering that any particular choice might not be a perfect synonym for the drab, discarded word. Roget was hauled into my tree house pallet, where I filled my notebooks with sappy, overwrought poems and highly descriptive short stories. It was lugged into the woods, where I sat among thick clumps of may apples and pressed wildflowers between its pages. But usually it rested quietly on my desk shelf, in the alcove created by the slant of my stairs descending into my basement room, waiting for my return home from school, my slide into the wobbly particle board and aluminum framed chair, and the lifting of my hinged desk top to retrieve my writing tablet. Then my forefinger would hook over the now frayed top binding of Roget and pull the book toward me. Words were no longer just assortments of letters, mere tools with which to say something, but were beautiful, breathing entities, flowing sounds, strong foundations. Illustrious. Preternatural. Languorous. Abnegate. Palpitate.
Thankfully, my sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Curl, graciously overlooked my pretentiousness and recognized my yearnings. Gradually, assigned paragraphs made it from her desk to the classroom bulletin board for the small world of my classmates to see. “THIS WEEK’S BEST ESSAYS,” the letters cut out of construction paper and stapled across the top of the wood framed cork board, announced the “winners” each Friday. I would rush to the board upon entering the room, my eyes scanning the looseleaf pages tacked on the board, looking for my own familiar handwriting. If one of my own pages were there, I would re-read it, my heart swelling with pride and with love for my teacher who recognized such talent. If none of my writing appeared that week, I turned amateur and resentful literary critic, mentally comparing these clearly inferior specimens to the passages I had produced, with absolutely no conception of the classroom politics, uniform teacherly encouragement, or avoidance of favoritism that gentle Mrs. Curl had to consider.
That year, Mr. Roget and Mrs. Curl collaborated to prod me in a career path. Newly enamored with a love for language itself and heady with the thrill of a talent identified and encouraged, I launched my plan to be a Semi-famous Small Town Author. Within two years, I published my first short story, a one page submission which won first prize in the writing contest sponsored by my church denomination’s magazine. Yet almost fifteen years passed before I saw anything else in printBa literary analysis accepted by a scholarly journal in my first year of grad school. Despite the many intervening years, my excitement at this publication felt identical to the thrill I felt at age thirteen upon seeing my carefully copied submission transformed into neat, justified typeset columns in that small magazine. The few, scattered academic publications after that bolstered my resolve to one day accomplish the ultimate writing feat: to publish a book. No number of accumulated individual publications could carry the weight of a single book; no amount of writing effort could make me deserve the title of Writer, or, even more formidable, Author.
Then, at age fifty, it finally happened. It was not magic or luck or accident or nepotism. It was determined effort, a sabbatical focus, stubborn persistence in researching presses, sending out query letters, submitting selections, revising. And, on the day I received the e-mail confirming that my book had been selected for publication, my excitement still felt identical to the thrill I felt at age thirteen.
It still feels presumptuous to identify myself as a writer. Though my brain tells me that a writer is someone who writes, and I do, so I am, part of me still wonders if a Real Author must devote herself full time to her task, or make a portion of her income from her efforts, or have a modicum of name recognition within the writing community. So oddly, despite the many intervening years, I often still feel like that hopeful thirteen year old girl, rushing to see if her paper is thumbtacked to a bulletin board.