A Writer’s Life Spent Looking Into Windows

(Originally published in Main Line Life 1/30/08)

I have spent my writer’s life looking into windows. Not literally of course, although the idea appeals. But as I work in my home “office” on the third floor of a rambling house built in 1898, I look across the back yards of my neighbors and see their blank windows, flat gray in the winter chill – a day with little light in it.

What goes on behind those windows? I think that is what makes me a writer. I simultaneously want to know, yet can’t know, so I make something up. I know what goes on in my own house, behind my own windows. Or do I? As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to the realization that we can never truly know what goes on, even with the very people we live with. We all have secret worlds inside our heads that we will never share with another, no matter how close we are to them. No matter that it is mother or sister or husband or dearest friend.

We all have dreams that are too precious to speak of and risk misunderstanding, or worse, dismissal. Better to keep those dreams under wraps. We all also have bad thoughts, or what we think must be bad thoughts: misunderstandings, past grievances, hurts we hoard like hard nuggets of proof of our own unworthiness. These inner thoughts – this inner life – is what separates us.

I think what writers do, and artists also, is to look into windows and puzzle out the things that separate us and try to find the common threads. We try to explain what it is to be human, knowing all the while that it can’t really be done. Even when the lights come on at night and I can see clearly into the houses of my neighbors, I look away. I can’t know their stories even by seeing what is there right in front of me.

I became a writer at a young age. I remember an afternoon forty years ago when I had an “idea” that suddenly seemed imperative that I write down. It was an idea for a story. I was fifteen years old and working after school at what was then called the “five-and-dime.” This idea (I couldn’t tell you for the life of me now what it was) filled me with such a sense of joyful purpose that I scribbled down several paragraphs on the back of a paper bag as I worked the cash register. When I got home I wrote my story, a story that no longer exists except that it gave me my first sense of purpose, my first real dream, other than meeting and marrying Paul McCartney.

Because of my newfound passion for writing, I became editor of my high school newspaper in Golden, Colorado for two years. Then I went to college, moved to California, got married, had two children, moved to Chicago, got divorced and re-married, and five years ago moved to Haverford. During my twenties I worked as a restaurant manager and a fitness instructor – jobs that did not utilize my degree in political science. The dream of writing, of being a writer, stayed on the back burner.

When I was home raising children, without a “real job” for the first time, I felt the pull of my dream of writing return to me. It returned with a wallop and it hasn’t left me since. In the nearly twenty-five years since my first essay was published in the Los Angeles Times, I have published well over three hundred essays in both local and national newspaper and magazines. I have written poems, a children’s book, and published several short stories. I have written two novels, started more than a few others, and self-published one. I have never made much money – when I speak to high school English classes about my work I advise students get a day job.

All of this is my way of introducing myself, now that I am four columns in, to the readers of Main Line Life. Two of the best compliments I ever received as a writer were, “I felt like you were looking right in my window,” and “Your essay made me laugh and cry at the same time.” There is plenty of sadness in our world, but mostly I try and see the humor in things. I hope you will laugh along with me. And really, I am not looking in your window…

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