“Debbie?” she said.
Well, I hadn’t been Debbie since sophomore year of high school (I go by Deb), but pasting an apologetic smile on my face, I said, “Yes?”
“You don’t remember me,” Statuesque Blonde said. “I’m Cindy Blake.” (Not her real name.)
Ah, yes, I knew her. We’d been friends, sort of, in elementary school. Maybe we were Camp Fire Girls together, and I went to her house to play. I remember a large, scary mother in a print apron and a severely mentally disabled sister. But I didn’t recognize this beautiful, model-tall, power-suited woman in front of me. The Cindy I knew was awkward, gawky with stringy hair and horsey teeth.
We chatted. She proceeded to spill her life story as we stood in line – abusive parents, institutionalized, victimized sister. At age fifteen, my former friend became emancipated, living on her own in a seedy apartment, working two jobs while earning her GED.
She talked about being unhappy at school, about bullying. Then she said, “They were mean to you, too.”
I frowned, surprised. “They were?”
I had left behind those childhood memories. Or buried them.
As a child, I was awkward. I was weird, I think. Scratch that, I know I was. I laughed at the wrong times, said the wrong things or didn’t say the right things. I chose the outfield position in PE, so I could stand as far from flying objects as possible. I feared. I suffered. And I yearned to belong.
Everyone does, right?
But I was an outsider. My favorite stories to cry over were “Poor Little Match Girl” and The Little Princess, both of which feature scenes of a hungry protagonist gazing through a window to a party in a lighted room. A perfect metaphor for my childhood self who hungered to step through that door.
It’s not much of a leap to understand my interest in ghosts and my decision to build my novel Moonlight Dancer around one. In her lifetime, my character NanJu was a shaman, powerful in her way but also feared and shunned, so she became a ghost in life as well as in death. A ghost is just another kind of outsider looking in, another metaphor for yearning.
Outsiders are natural authors-in-residence. They are the observers; they notice the small stuff that vibrates our internal tuning forks. The trick is to remember the taste, smell, touch of it all and then commit the sensations to memory or, as author Carole Maso advises, to a small notebook.
I'm not complaining, mind you. Sometime in high school I turned "normal," whatever that is, and even found myself inside that lit room. Luckily, I never surrendered the keys to the out-kingdom. I still remember how to boot up my weirdness and step into Snow White’s shoes. Or perhaps Cinderella’s? They are both outsiders.
It is possible, I suppose, to be a popular, well-adjusted young person and grow up to be an author. Gloria Steinem finds the tormented writer schtick overrated and wishes she had suffered less. Yet, given the choice, I wouldn't trade in my awkward early experiences as they have helped me to sense and feel in ways that ease the hard work of climbing into a character’s skin.
I believe today’s emotional pain is tomorrow’s writing gain, not for me alone, but for all authors. Weirdness helps, that certain quirky, outside way of looking at the world (that would allow, for instance, a tornado to whisk a farm girl to a land where a lion lacks courage – who thinks of that?) as does a keen sensate memory. In her memoir Lucky, Alice Sebold writes that when she told her writing professor Tobias Wolff she had to miss class because she’d just spotted her rapist, he said, “Try, if you can, to remember everything.”