A good friend tells me she credits her Catholic upbringing for her decision to become an artist. Though Catholicism is not a part of her adult life, it loomed large in her childhood, and she was in awe of the stained glass images in her church, and later the biblical images that form such a vital part of art history. I understand this a little, though as an outsider. I love many of those images too, the grand ones and also the humbler ones. My husband and I were taken with a TransCanada Highway madonna we spotted some years ago, somewhere between Mattawa and North Bay. We snapped dozens of pictures of it.
But I think in all honesty that what drew me to the sight — what prompted me to want so many pictures of it — was the landscape around as much as it was Mary. The landscape of my childhood has been one of my biggest inspirations.
A while ago another friend told me he believed he’d become a writer because of his Christian upbringing, steeped in Old Testament stories and psalm singing. He remembers being transfixed as his father read the stories aloud, and wanting to shout out to warn one character about another.
After these two friends revealed their thoughts to me, I got to thinking about about inspiration. This man’s siblings did not become writers, and the woman’s siblings did not become artists. What makes one sibling hang on every word of a dramatic story, or gasp at brilliant stained glass, while the others find their passions elsewhere? And what made me become a writer?
Religion was more or less absent from my home, but I remember the lurching feeling my writer friend talks about, because I had it too, though I experienced it reading children’s books and playing games and watching television shows and playing Barbies alone for hours on end. When I look back, I see this as the beginning of my love for storytelling, and my curiosity about the way the layers of stories unfold.
I remember feeling sick watching The Flintstones. The half-hour stretches were almost unbearable, partly because Fred’s meanness disturbed me, but also because the episodes always revolved around a misunderstanding — such as when Barney bought a ring for Betty, Fred hid it for him so it would be a surprise, and Wilma found it and thought it was for her. It was agonizing to watch, since I could not see my way through to the inevitable resolution before it actually came. Even the music that opened the show gave me that gnawing in the pit of my stomach that told me something was about to go very, very wrong.
None of this meant I didn’t want to watch — it meant I needed to watch, to see the story come full circle.
And I would imagine my own stories too, both by writing them down and acting them out with Barbies. I mentioned in an earlier post that I liked to play on my own because it gave me the freedom to take the story in any direction I chose. I took it very, very seriously. In a sense, I guess my days now, tucked away in my office writing, are a logical extension of those earlier times.
And that reminds me of Charles Darwin, who tells in his Autobiographies of his boyhood love for beetles. “I will give proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.”
Some of us find our passions early, and I feel lucky to be in that group. I knew from a young age that I wanted to write, and so I wrote — very badly at first, for a long, long time (sometimes still). But I didn’t stop. I was always hooked. It wasn’t enough for me to read other people’s stories; I had to make my own.