What people are ashamed of usually makes a good story.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald
When I was tiny and trying to make sense of a world that seemed senseless, I told myself stories. I daydreamed, a lot. I would dream myself onto Gilligan’s Island. I would pretend Mr. Rogers was my neighbor. I would hunt treasure with Robert Louis Stephenson.
I got in trouble because sometimes, I wanted these stories in my head to be real so badly, I would speak them into existence. I would say things that weren’t true. I would tell about something the way it should have happened. I did it enough that my parents sent me to a child psychologist, for one session. I don’t know what they thought could be accomplished in one session but that is all I recall. I went one time and after the forty-five minute therapist’s hour was up, my parents were told I lied because I had low self-esteem. And that was that.
I don’t think anything changed afterwards except now I knew that my behavior embarrassed and disappointed my parents. I was filled with shame. Often my lies were an attempt to cast myself in a mold I thought my parents would like more than the disappointing one I inhabited. I was a double failure. I was an awkward kid, preternaturally intelligent, precocious, uncomfortable in my own skin, with thick glasses and few friends. I spent most of my time alone. I got picked on a lot. I can not remember a time when I did not think I was homely or fat or that I did not know I was a disappointment.
The older I got, the less frequent the tales became but when they did fall out of my mouth, they were much larger in scale. I suppose this was an outgrowth of my expanding knowledge base. I don’t know. I know I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to say things that weren’t true but I also remember being desperate for approval and love. If I couldn’t get approval and love, I eventually went for disapproval and punishment, any attention was better than no attention at all. By sheer force of will, I think, I grew into, well, a real stunner. But I still carried all of those old hurts and fears and I didn’t really enjoy it, was never truly secure. I still spent most of my time alone but I was now alone in a crowd.
When I was sixteen, I met a teacher who changed my life. At the time, I didn’t know it. I can’t even recall her name. I wish I could. I think it might be Mrs. Thompson but I’m not sure. I’ve tried but I can’t so I will call her Mrs. Red because she sported a magnificently unfashionable set of spinsterish auburn curls.
Mrs. Red was my English teacher. She was the first adult to ever treat me like I had a mind worth working. She was the first person to notice I had a talent for writing. She was the first person to notice I wrote, period. Mrs. Red was also the first person to look me in the eye and call bullshit. She knew I wasn’t operating at even half-speed. Mrs. Red was magnificent. She made me write. She made me write every week. She made me write poetry. She made me write essays. She made me write stories. She made me enter contests. She submitted my work to magazines and publications.
At a time when I desperately needed someone to tell me I was good enough, she told me I was better than good, I was uniquely talented. It was the first time anyone had made me feel good about being smart, about being different. I won writing awards. I got published.
It took me several more years to own all of that, to own my intelligence, to own what set me apart from others. The untruths got smaller and smaller and smaller and dwindled away to nothing. It took many more years and more than one session with a therapist to come to terms with the dragons from my childhood. There is still a part of me, the child-me, that wants love and approval, wants to not be a disappointment to my parents, that still feels solitary and distant but it doesn’t rule my life. I can usually talk myself through, talk myself down, whenever it happens.
It is funny, how the thing that used to get me in so much trouble now brings me the most praise. I’m a writer. I get praise for making things up. I can tell a story like no other. I can hold an auditorium filled with people in the palm of my hand. I can make them laugh and cry and jump to their feet with applause, whatever I want them to do, all with my words, with my stories, with the truth. Life is better than fiction.