“Bio”

A couple of years ago, I was in a writing group, and we gave ourselves an assignment: to compose a “Writing Bio.” I recently came across mine, which takes a somewhat “tongue-in-cheek” approach, and focuses on my childhood experiences with books and writing. I share it here, with a few updates, and hope you find it entertaining.

The Early Years–Accomplishments

At seven I was chosen to attend the Young Authors’ Conference at Oakland University. This felt like a huge honor, and a kind of professional validation. I remember dressing up for the day-long event in a new outfit—something tasteful and sophisticated, I think it had a jacket and maybe I even wore a hat although I may be getting it confused with Easter…

Around the same time, I completed outlines for several novels. I kept them in the middle drawer of my roll-top desk. I remember I was still somewhat perplexed by the things adults did, and found it a real stumbling-block, trying to understand their motivations. One of my novels had to do with life on the frontier. I must have been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Inspired by reading Harriet the Spy, for a while I kept a notebook hidden on my person and tried to write down observations of everyone around me. It was frustrating that my adventures weren’t nearly as exciting as Harriet’s. I didn’t see much from the top of the neighbors’ eight-foot redwood fence, other than their pool.

Early Influences

E. B. White. I still read Charlotte’s Web every now and then. White’s writing is beautifully clear, direct and I think, soulful. It was no surprise to me years later to discover he was half of “Strunk & White,” the style guide. You could say he literally “wrote the book” on writing.

Andre Norton. I didn’t know, as a child, that “Andre” was a pen name, and the writer was a woman. I didn’t love all of her books—but I was crazy about Gray Magic, a fantasy story in which each of three children had to perform a task that forced them to face their personal fears. (For one of them, spiders, for another, heights.) The title is out of print. Isn’t it sad that this happens to great books?

Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island was the first book I bought with my birthday money, and I was so young I couldn’t yet read it. I think my mom read it to me until I could tackle it. I bought the Illustrated Junior Library edition with wonderfully dramatic illustrations by Norman Price. Stevenson is a master storyteller. And has anyone come up with a villain more engaging than Long John Silver? Or a character scarier than blind Pew? If you have never read the book, I highly recommend it.

Rudyard Kipling. The Jungle Book was also on my childhood bookcase. Kipling is another amazing storyteller, and his animal characters are without peer. I especially remember the wise and unflappable Bagheera the panther, and Rikki-tikki-tavi, the valiant little mongoose who saves an entire family from the cobras.

Betty MacDonald, who wrote the “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” books. These stories did not impress me even then as great writing—but they were incredibly formulaic, and I remember being dimly aware that the stories were satisfying because they stuck to a tried and true recipe.

Richard Wright. My eighth-grade Spanish teacher read to us from Black Boy every Friday, until someone’s parents complained and he was forced to go back to Spanish lessons. This memoir left an indelible impression on me as I entered my teenage years—“searing” is not too strong a word to describe its effect.

Recent Achievements

I’ve managed to write a bit of poetry, a couple of stories, and a lot of personal essays. In 2014 I self-published a memoir, The Cottage: Portrait of a Place. But the real accomplishment for me is when someone tells me that words I wrote touched them deeply enough to bring tears to their eyes. That is the writing that makes me feel successful. If a reader is moved enough to cry (or to laugh, or slap the table in agreement), I think I must have got through.

Nancy Squires August 2016

Then and Now

When I was young I wanted to write, but I thought I didn’t know anything. I realize now that I knew so little, I didn’t even recognize what I did know.

I did not see any importance in it, that my grandfather wore his old black leather shoes over the sand and into the boat when we went out fishing for perch or bass in the Bay. The same shoes he wore gardening, tending the cucumbers and green beans and tomatoes he would bring us every week in a rough garden basket with an arching handle, made of splints like a bushel.

I didn’t know it was important, that my grandmother had these objects in a tin in the linen closet: the rattles from a rattlesnake; a letter from a Union soldier (her ancestor), writing of seeing Abraham Lincoln when he came to review the troops; a huge, half-worn away shell, thick and brown and fossilized like an old bone.

I didn’t know how much it mattered, that one grandfather sang WWI songs (entrhusiastically and slightly off-key), the other wore a nightcap to bed to keep his bald head warm. He cried once, at the dinner table, when we were all gathered with him, saying grace, because he loved us, and he was ill. He had Parkinson’s. Some thirty years later, my dad would be diagnosed.

I didn’t know then to try to capture and express the beautiful coolness of my maternal grandparents’ screened porch on a hot summer day; shaded but warm, how lazy we felt there, how my sister and I would fight over space on the chaise, covered in velour printed with big, sweeping palms in the colors of a vintage Hawaiian shirt: gray-green, yellow, magenta. I didn’t think to write about my grandmother’s fingers, crooked with arthritis, clasped around the garden shears as she cut zinnias. Even now I love those riotous colors. We would wrap the stems in wet paper towels, then foil to keep them fresh on the ride back to our house. Her shoes too I failed to write about: black or navy, Grandma shoes, lace-ups with a block heel. In my mind I can hear them, gently clicking across the kitchen floor as she went to open the back door onto the porch, or in winter, to raise the shade on the window. She talked on a black wall telephone there beside the door, standing up.

I remember going on a train with my paternal grandparents, when my sister and I were very small. I don’t remember where we went, or much about it—just that it was exciting. I believe they took us because they wanted us to know what it was like, to ride a train, before such things were gone. For probably the same reason, they took us to the State Fair. And yes, now it’s gone—the life-size cow sculpted from butter, the cavernous old buildings filled with rows and rows of chickens, pheasants, rabbits. The horse barns, the big ring they called “The Coliseum,” where riding competitions went on. The pens where every year one or two (or more?) sows would have just given birth. The huge expanse of the fairgrounds, here and there shaded with big old trees.

All gone. About to become a “development.”

I didn’t know how important any of it was.

“In the grand scheme of things” we often say, dismissing the trivial. But is there really anything like a grand scheme? If there is, if our lives have such a structure, they are made of small, crystalline moments that we are rarely much aware of, at the time.

But I had one, yesterday.

My partner’s mother, Jeanette, is in Alzheimer’s care. We went to see her, and unpack some of her things, just arrived from Florida. She was sound asleep, sprawled in a big, cushy recliner near the nurse’s station. She’d been sleeping all morning, the staff told us. They weren’t sure why she was so tired. Sally and I stood by the chair, and as I watched her, she seemed so completely inert, I wasn’t sure at first if she was breathing. Then, after a moment, I saw her thin frame expand, her chest rise, and then contract, just slightly.

We went on to her room, did our work there and when we started down the hall to leave we saw Jeanette approaching, in her wheelchair, pushed by one of her caregivers. I smiled a big smile and as she saw me she smiled too and we hailed her. “Hi Jeanette!” “Hi Mom!” “You woke up!” Still smiling she said, “Yes I woke up.” And I felt such a stab of connection that I knew instantly how much it meant, how grateful I was to have that moment—just that, nothing more. As we loaded some stuff we were taking with us into Sally’s truck tears came to my eyes.

Now I know. Then I didn’t. So it is for all of us, that we have to grow and learn, and so many, many things we’ll witness before we know the value of them. We are lucky when we do.