Tag Archives: childhood

harriet the spy + why i write

So here I am, sitting in a cold, damp, deserted-dorm-room-turned-night-host-office and, instead of doing my homework, I am sifting through my Craft of Nonfiction portfolio compiled last Fall and came across this. I forgot I wrote this and it made me smile. Enjoy, and have sweet dreams as I sit here freezing my ears off.

Harriet the Spy and Other Reasons I Write by Liz Van Buren

It all started with Harriet the Spy. I was about seven when the movie came out, and the thought of there being an eleven year old spy exhilarated me. This was still around that time when I thought “anything was possible” and didn’t see anything wrong with that scenario. She traveled the dangerous streets of the city in her oversized yellow trench coat with all her “gear” tucked gently into coat pockets and the waistband of her pants. She also carried a composition notebook, personally decorated, which kept all of her observations and personal thoughts and speculations about all of the people she encountered in her travels. Harriet M. Welsch was the coolest girl alive to me, and I wanted to be a spy just like her.

Since the closest thing I had to a trench coat was a plastic Barbie raincoat, and my parents didn’t let me any farther than the front lobby, I settled on spying on people from my bedroom window, up on the sixth floor of an apartment complex mostly inhabited by Jewish seniors. This and my faulty binoculars did not stop me from believing I was going to achieve greatness as a seven-year old spy on my block. On my first day, I sat and scouted the building across the street, window by window, until I finally spotted someone moving on the third floor. I scrambled for my notebook – spiral not composition, and only decorated with the word “PRIVATE” in bubble letters – and began taking notes.

This lasted a total of fifteen minutes, until I realized that nothing interesting will come of a stay-at-home mom vacuuming and cleaning windows. Disappointed day after day with such poor results, I began to contrive my own observations – as a product of an overheated imagination. One night, I saw an adult male walk through his bedroom, look around for something, and then leave. He returned, looked out the window, and then shut the curtains. Though he probably saw the seven-year old Peeping Tom across the street and wanted some privacy, I imagined that he had some poor, innocent victim tied to a chair, ready to be sliced apart. He seemed like that kind of person. Because surely, a professional spy such as myself could read his facial expression accurately enough to make such a deduction from a hundred feet away.

But I suppose I am getting a little off-track.

Why do you write? I was once asked this very same question at a week-long writer’s workshop about four years ago. Many of the other impressionable young writers in my group spoke of family members, of being the first generation in their family to strive for education and success. Others said they hope to be published someday, and one kid even included that he often writes to calm himself from the paranoid feelings he gets while high on marijuana. We were a very eclectic bunch, I’d say. But the only problem is I don’t actually remember what I said. I remember it being some grandiose statement about something like “the awakening of my soul,” or a “cathartic release of emotion,” and perhaps “inspiration.” Ah, yes, I remember there being lots of inspiration.

Though I mock the sixteen-year old me, I’m almost ashamed to admit that those statements aren’t too far from the truth, as it stands now. I am now twenty years old, and essentially, I write to blow off steam. I write down my thoughts when, for whatever reason, I cannot verbalize them. I write when my friends piss me off, or when some asshole breaks my heart, or when my family hovers and overprotects me and treats me like an irresponsible, incapable invalid who can’t take care of herself. I write when I’m stressed about school, or afraid of the future. I write to escape the pain and distress of all of this. And sure, I suppose I write when I’m feeling rather jaded, hoping that maybe a word, or a phrase, or even the feeling of pen to paper will spark something exciting in my soul.

But I suppose that isn’t all there is to it. Lately, I also write because I am obsessed with the English language, and have been since the eleventh grade when Mr. Vicari introduced me to its many complexities and quirks. In eleventh grade English, he taught us to analyze a work until you could no longer read its original text, only the hundreds of notes you’ve taken in the margins and between the lines; not only did he heighten my awareness to intricate metaphors and imagery, but he also taught us to take note of every punctuation mark, when an author capitalizes words, and other seemingly minute details. These methods of reading also taught me to enhance my writing; I remember wanting to someday be so talented as to write something that could be so carefully scrutinized by the students of Mr. Vicari’s eleventh grade English classes.

Now, far beyond the eleventh grade, I use this almost-newfound love of words as something didactic. I challenge myself every time I write something, and I push my words to be something far better than they’ve ever been. Writing is almost like a puzzle for me – like a challenge or – ha! – a word problem. I’m like a “soccer mom” to my thoughts, obsessed with their performance.

If I were to concisely recapitulate what I’ve just said (which I often find a grueling task) I could say that the reasons behind why I write are ever-changing; it really depends on the day.

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the door

I miss the sound of her doorbell, if you could believe it. How when I pushed my finger onto that small white orb it vibrated through my fingertip, almost reaching into my body like an electric shock. It was loud, and the accent fell on the second, deeper note, which incidentally lingered in the air for what felt like hours. Though the same each time, its intensity always jolted through me with surprise. It was always a treat for us, to be chosen to ring that doorbell, to be the one of us to offset that melody. But when you’re young, everything is exciting.

This reverberating start to each visit was followed by a methodical anticipation: hearing her exclamation – usually, “Coming!” – and listening as my grandmother’s footsteps inched closer on the opposite side of the door, louder, until we heard the energetic crack, pop of the locks and the scratchy sound the door made as it swept against the rough carpet. In spite of the friction, she always opened that door with excitement, because on the other side stood her grandchildren.

Eventually her footsteps aged, more time between each step. But for children naïve to reality, this only increased the suspense. Then, the noise of a louder television masked the sounds of her footsteps, overpowering, and a click, roll of a walker was introduced to the cacophony. Sometimes, even, we would have to ring twice, which turned our anticipation into restlessness. The opening of the door began to lack its usual excitement, but rather emphasized resistance, exertion, exhaustion, often with a complimentary groan.

These days, there is no doorbell. There is no anticipation – on either end of the door – for I open the door myself as my grandmother sits idly in her chair, emotionally exhausted. No reverberating melody, no vibrating fingertips, just that harsh snap of the locks – like breaking bones – and an exhausted thrust of the door – a result of shoddy measurements, I bet. While that door once swung open with joy, I now swing it open with grief, out of fear – not excitement – at what I’ll find on the other side of that door.

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