How a Writer Emerged from Childhood’s Attic

Her newest novel, FALLEN, will be published next week, and Kathleen George has a wonderful column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about her creative origins.

The making of a writer

Sunday, June 27, 2004

By Kathleen George

Our guest book columnist this month is Kathleen George, a Johnstown native whose second novel, “Fallen,” will be published this month.

When I was 8, I took my accumulated miseries up to the attic, where I had discovered I could make an area (a small “stage set”?) with table, chair, notebooks and pen, and suddenly my world seemed whole and good — a secret and a treasure.

Mysterious and yet controllable, too. As my stomach tumbled with the thrill of hurtling up those steps, I could wonder what was in all the garment bags that hung on the lines and swayed when I moved, ghosts awakened by my presence.

Up in the attic, I could be alone. I could smell the raw wood heated by sun; I could catch in the air whispers of cedar and mothballs. I could think.

On many a day, I sat and thought and wrote down my thoughts. How did I know to do this? Nobody in my family talked about writing. I didn’t know any writers.

Had I read a story about a writer and set out to imitate it? Was it the same year or an earlier time when I had made a summer carnival in our back yard?

I wrote lines and made tents out of sheets and blankets and dragged all the neighborhood kids into my yard and directed them on what to do.

Then I went door to door, drumming up audiences. When the parents and tiny children came to our yard to sample the acts I had organized, I collected money. The neighbors thanked me. I liked it.

One winter, I required entertainment and so, wrote lines for a cast of characters to speak. Casting was limited. My siblings were all I had. I gave them puppets and put them behind the headboard of the bed and told them what to say and how to move the puppets.

The potential for an audience was limited, too. I made my parents come in to see what I had wrought. They wanted to watch “Meet the Press,” but they came.

I got to eighth grade and barreled up my miseries in the form of a very schlocky Christmas play. I took it to my teacher. She asked, “Can you put this on for the class?”

Had I ever seen a play? Or a puppet show for that matter? I must have, but I don’t remember them. Nevertheless, I chose some classmates and told them when to come into the room and what to say.

My play was sad. The little girl in it saved her family from everything terrible. Poverty? Disease? I don’t remember.

Anyway, my protagonist triumphed. A class full of kids looked puzzled and sober. The teacher patted my head.

In high school, I wrote another schlocky story about a little girl whose main virtue was that she lived when the other little girl in the story, a perfect child, died.

My protagonist’s mother had to love her because she was all there was! And she was a well-meaning kid.

The point is, I was doing something — what name shall we give this creating of an alternate world? Was it fiction? Sometimes. Was it theater? Sometimes.

I never asked. I was making up stories and sending them forth, one way or the other.

Let’s jump ahead 30 years. I go to the Breadloaf Summer Writers Conference in Vermont. I’m writing some stuff now, of the attic sort, the lonely, dust-smelling sort, and I’m excited.

However my job is as a teacher of theater and a director of plays (carnival work). Theater is public and collaborative; writing is solitary. I have colleagues in the theater department looking puzzled and saying, “You’re writing fiction. That’s not one of our activities.”

I am searching for a way to say, “That’s one of my activities.”

Up at the podium at Breadloaf is novelist Rosellen Brown. She has made the subject of her address the idea that writers should not stay in one place or genre, but should experiment with other forms.

Brown talks feelingly about writing for pleasure as a child, reminding all of us in her audience of the sheer sensual pleasure of discovery.

She explains that once a bit of mastery has been gained, the writer believes she is supposed to specialize; pressure of that sort comes from establishments to make most writers believe so.

But Brown, for one, didn’t want to specialize. She wrote poetry. She wrote plays.

“With the hard-won expertise that allows us to do only one thing well, and that if we’re lucky, has come a sort of tightness of the muscles that makes it hard and maybe even makes it feel unnecessary to adapt from one form to another, and I think it’s a shame and a loss,” she said (and wrote later in a now famous essay).

Brown helped me to understand there is a kind of unified search going on under all forms of storytelling, to get rid of demons, of course.

(Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, all writers are crazy, all theater people are crazy.)

It’s to find the words and images to tell the story that is troubling the mind and heart the right way. I realized that summer that, when I was in carnival mode, I’d been writing on the stage with people and things — Henry Heymann’s brightly designed scenery, Lorraine Vernberg’s costumes, Dan Frezza’s mellifluous voice.

At other times I was writing alone in my room — paper and pencil, then typewriter, then computer. The dusty attic mode.

Both creative routes, the public and the private, give us opportunities to collect our miseries and to do something with them. As my former professor and lifetime mentor, the late Bert O. States wrote to me:

“The times when it is most rewarding to be alive are those when you are in another world of your own creation. There’s an irony in that, I suppose. …”

Oh, yes.


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