07 November 2008

Listen. Pay attention.

Laura described things to her blind sister, Mary. Mom told me that's how she got so good. If you watch the world and practice describing it, you can be good too. You can be a writer too.

So I paid attention to the acrid scent of the printer shop and the hot-pressed air, to the little jars of pink and green paper clips above my head on the counter, where my mother stood at the paper cutter slicing proofs to just the right size.

And I listened to the moan of the copiers as they vibrated back and forth while I sat beneath a folding table with the box of paper scraps in strips or squares, sometimes whole sheets buzzing in yellow, fucia, french blue, or tangerine. Johnny and I would draw or fold them into airplanes while my mother made greeting card proofs. Sometimes the printer's daughter was in, and she would make paper chains with us, sitting under the table too.

My mom was a calligrapher and a watercolor artist and didn't write that often, except copying psalms and scripture verses onto her artwork. When we were kids she started reading out loud to us, to Johnny and I, who always wanted one more story. That reading of bedtime stories was the most she had read. Now she reads all the time.

Sometimes she would leave us in the car. She always took longer than she thought she would. I remember the rainy days, sitting in the station wagon--white with brown fake paneling down the sides--and she would bring sheets of paper out to us, where we drew. She would leave the radio playing, classical music, and Johnny and I would decide what kind of scene the music would illustrate. He always thought that each piece was a perfect battle soundtrack; I imagined myself riding horses through fields.

At night we would read those prairie stories, and whenever mom got to a description that she thought particularly good, she would stop and read it again--when Laura and Mary were riding on the train, and Laura described the countryside as it unfurled, colors and shapes and long shadows. "Look at that," my mother would say. "If you pay attention to everything that happens, if you practice, you can write."