I didn’t know that I could be a writer. I grew up working class and poor. I wasn’t around educated people or people who would ever dream of going off and being an artist of any sort.
The tracks behind my trailer park were rusted through and latticed with jimson and other deadly nightshades. Irrigation districts flooded with toxins from airplanes that sprayed tomato and cotton crops with insecticide, and the trout that my uncles caught had tumors in their cheeks and stunted fins. Until I moved out at sixteen, I couldn’t tell you the names of 90% of the items in the produce section of the super market, and my adoptive mother, a dead ringer for Naomi Watts, often flirted our dinner from the Schwanns man whose route took him through my grandparents’ front yard. James, my adoptive father, worked in construction through the early years of my life, before melanoma forced him to take an indoor job as a prison guard at Calipatria State Prison (he later got promoted and transferred to Folsom Prison, and my family moved to a small almond orchard town in the Sacramento Valley for the remainder of my adolescence). Naomi Watts was a stay-at-home mom who took courses in DOS (remember DOS?) at a local community college until she was offered a job as a bank teller.
I was not raised in a learned or nutritional or even a particularly nurturing household. My folks read political drivel by Michael Savage, or books about the apocalypse/dispensationalist End Times, otherwise known as The Left Behind Series. Every week I brought home truckloads of books from the library stacked up in piles on my Radio Flyer, then waited for my parents to come home so I could stand in front of them with each book, and read them each description from the sleeve. This was their vetting process for determining which books were in line with our Southern Baptist upbringing, and which books were mired in sin (the latter of which included everything from The Red Pony to anything by Judy Blume to the entire Goosebumps series). When we did reach an agreement about which books I was allowed to read, I was then given fifteen minutes before bedtime each night to stuff my face with as many words as possible.
I was an incredibly lonely child. I preferred books to friends (except for the two imaginary ponies I had, Butterwings and Starlight, who lived in the clouds and would come down to let me pet them during recess), preferred to find myself in the trenches of great wars and hunts and impossible love triangles and mean girls than on the monkey bars with kids who had no idea how to react to the fact that I lost my parents at an unconventionally early age. During Composition Hour at my elementary school, I wrote insatiably, most notably a brilliant and heartwarming poem called “The Sky is Blue (because if it were green it would be ugly)” and a whole series of short stories that featured myself as the protagonist, a Harriet-the-Spy prototype. I hid in my neighbor’s bougainvillea dell with notebooks and busted-open ballpoint pens that I could not keep my teeth off of and wrote. I wrote about being someplace else, I wrote about being afraid of God, I wrote about having crushes on my girl classmates, I wrote about my fake horses, I wrote about dead fish, I wrote to save myself from dying. In her memoir, Jeanette Winterson says something that made me cry out when I first read it: “Literature is not a hiding place. It’s a finding place.”
I feel the need to explain myself. Not to dismiss or make light of the paths all of us, as writers, have taken or been shoved down on this gutted globe. But really, to nod to the shifting of atoms that got us typing in the first place, that replaced our metal typeface letter by letter with plastic buttons and boards, and that found us here. Here, 2012. Taking ourselves seriously or not taking ourselves seriously, as writers, after profoundly difficult starts. Because, yeah, I do believe that writers all come from broken spaces, and that those spaces? They are self-defined, they are important, and they are something that you must have wanted to fix, or reclaim, or change, or triumph over. I believe, friends, that you do exactly this the day you decide to take yourself seriously as a poet, or a fiction writer, or a playwright, or a journalist, or the million and one sects of writing and its accompanying communities that we are lucky enough to have in this country. You sit down at your computer, or you hide with your notebook, or you over-stay your welcome over a cup of shitty coffee at a diner, or you type up your novel on one page on an old Royal, and you take history from your parents, your president, your ex, your assailant, and you bastardize it and you shipwreck it and you make tender-gorgeous war with it. There is no question of when you’re done, because you’re never done, your appetite started the moment you realized the universe had a sick sense of humor, and every single time you get punched to your ass after thinking you’ve got it figured out, you write another chapter, or poem, or scene.
Take back the trailer park. Put your pen back between your teeth and feast.
July Westhale is a writer, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Dangerous Sweetness, Glitter Tongue, PRISM International, Generations Literary Journal, Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot, 580 Split, Quarterly West, Muzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthology, Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011. She was nominated as a Best New Poet of 2012.