Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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Rebecca Hakiel
English 201
Essay 1
December 2001

The Essence of Writing

It is strange how some memories fade and become blurred after just a short time while other memories remain so clear and concise that you almost touch them years later. I remember very distinctly the winter evenings that my sisters and I spent curled up on my mother’s bed listening to story after story. I can still hear the cold Wyoming winds that would beat against the windows and whistle through our chimney on those frosty winter nights. Yet, my mother’s soft-spoken words seemed to rise above those terrible winds weaving an enchanting story before our eyes. All of sudden we would find ourselves transported to a magical world where goblins stole rainbows or detectives solved impossible mysteries. In those splendid hours we would stop pulling on each other’s hair and become quietly captivated by a world of possibilities.

I wonder what a stranger might think if allowed a glimpse of our family at that time. It is quite possible they might come to some very misguided conclusions. For example, they might think we were exceptionally well-behaved children. Which proves that you should never underestimate the power of the written word.

What I took away from those short hours of tranquility was a love of stories. This love has grown throughout the years. Yet, when people ask why I (at the age of twenty-one) have chosen to declare English major, smog of confusion descends. I honestly don’t know why. I hate grammar, I can’t spell and rewrites seem like an extended headache. Despite all this I am drawn to the written language, drawn to the world that it opens. Its magic, its sense, and its chaos.

***

Magic. When I was eight I remember walking through our horse pasture and finding a tattered red balloon. Attached to the string was a letter. I thought that at last a great adventure was about to begin. After all it’s not every day you find letters attached to balloons. I immediately rushed home to show my mother. After reading it she helped me write a reply to some mysterious person who existed in a completely different world than me (at least that’s what I thought).

I received a very short letter back, which was written on elementary school paper (the kind that denies little children the joy of letting their ABC’s run free.) In excellent fourth grade handwriting, it said

Hi Becca Hakiel,

My name is Josh. Thank you for writing back. I won my balloon contest at school.
I live in Utah with my dog. I have two parents.

Sincerely,
Josh

It was a very nice letter but I was disappointed. After all, was this really the end? What about my great adventure?

Being the stubborn girl that I was, I decided to write several more letters to uncover the enchanted past of this boy. Surely he was really a prince who had been kidnapped by pirates? Perhaps he knew a Professor who had a magic wardrobe? Was he at least the friend of someone who was once a frog? To my great disappointment I received no letter that answered any of these questions. However, years later I realize that my efforts were not in vain. The day I stamped my first letter to that young boy I discovered the very real magic of words. For the first time in my life, I realized that I could use words to talk to people beyond the reality of my immediate existence.

Writing is like an incredible painting, which has the ability to go beyond the boundaries of time, beyond the boundaries of people we do or do not know. When I reflect on all the fairy-tales I have heard through the years it seems that "magic" is defined by being "the unexplainable". Is it then explainable that an Italian piece of literature from 800 years ago can reach both the time and language it was written in to touch the heart of a housewife somewhere in Tucson, Arizona? Certainly, there are few experiences in life that can be more magical than writing.

***

Sense. There is a time in life when everything around you becomes vague. When no matter what people say to you nothing is clear. It is that time in life when people look at you with an air of worldly wisdom and say "adolescence". I have heard that this happens again at some later point in life and then people look at you with an air of worldly wisdom and say "mid-life crisis". However, the first time I discovered a loss of sense was when I was thirteen. At this time my perspective of the world changed dramatically. It was through literature that I finally found a new perspective and regained a feeling of sense. It is also through literature that I continue to change this perspective.

Until I reached my early teenage years, I was convinced that the world was what you made it and that humankind was inherently good. I was na´ve at best. My idealistic misconceptions were easily broken by the reality of starving and deprived people. An image that still haunts me is a photograph I saw when I was thirteen. It depicted a skeleton of a child so weak that he could not keep a hoard of flies from gathering over his defeated body. The first time I actually met anyone who was truly deprived was a year later. When I was fourteen we went to visit my stepfamily in California. On Christmas Eve my stepfather took us to a soup kitchen in Los Angels so that we could help with the volunteer work. Growing up in Wyoming I had never encountered truly destitute people before. People whose entire life was stuffed into a black garbage bag and whose faces where haggard by hardships I can not begin to imagine. Having the world’s cruelties revealed to me broke all the illusions that this world previously held for me. I found myself completely submerged in muddled state. And then I read an author who seemed to make sense.

I was sitting in my big sister’s room looking through her books when I came across Notes from the Underground. Intrigued by the tittle I asked my sister what it was. She simply said "Read it, you’ll like it." A few hours later I turned over the last page, and said, "Your right, I do."

What gripped me at first was Dostoevsky’s style. It was as if he was anticipating my response to his writing and then with dark merriment, twisting my perceptive. I had never experienced writing like this before, and after finishing Notes from the Underground I was hooked. I immediately read Crime and Punishment, and it was here that I first discovered beautiful sense.

In Crime and Punishment there is a note of despair, which is a common theme in almost all his stories that I have read. However, all these stories also portray love, compassion and a beauty that is perhaps purer because it is surrounded on all sides by corrupt ugliness. Furthermore, Dostoevsky’s protagonists are very convincing characters because they are all marred in some way and not wholly good. Yet, they all try to do the right thing or at least what they think the right thing is. They also always follow their own conscience rather than having their actions dictated to them by a corrupt society. Most of Dostoevsky’s stories do not have happy endings but they do have a happiness I could believe in.

There is of course only so much existentialism a girl can take, and by the time I was seventeen I had put Dostoevsky on the shelf, and was finding comfort in the wit of Jane Austen (which was more optimistic). I was charmed by Austen’s amazing ability to understand human character and portray it in such a humorous light. Lines like, "For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?" have comforted me in more than one embarrassing situation.

When I reflect on all the books I’ve read and realize how they have affected my thinking, I know there will always be times in life when I pick up a book and it really speaks to me. This is because when I read, I automatically relate the ideas in the book to what is going on in my own life at that time. I’ve often loved a book because I thought it related to my way of thinking. A few years later I’ll reread it and think that it means something quite different but still relevant to my life. If anyone ever asks me "What does it all mean?" or "What is the sense of life?" I will probably say, "I don’t know…go read a book."

***

Chaos. Until I was nineteen, writing was an intellectual experience. By this I mean, although I loved the written language, I could always distance myself from a story if it became too hard to take. However, there came a time that I could not disconnect from the reality of written words. It was when I read a letter from my grandmother, who had recently died.

My grandmother was an oak, Hungarian to the core. She was remarkable to me not only because she had faced incredible hardships (such as polio and poverty) but, because she was enchanting. She used to be a cellist, and had supported herself through Juliard by making bets with people that she could rip entire phone books in half (at least this is the story I was told.) She could also throw one hell of a dinner party. The kind where there are no awkward moments, the conversation is always good, and you are always sorry to go home. But, most of all she was my sanctuary and something beyond the dreariness of daily existence.

When I first found out that grandmother had decided to exercise her living will, because the pain of cancer had become too much too bare, I felt my heart break. The month that followed was probably the most painful ordeal I ever went through. The procedure was drawn out longer than expected. Most people die within a few days after enacting their living will, for some reason (that the doctors could not explain) my grandmother had to go through the agony of such an ordeal for two weeks. During this time I wish I could say I remained strong and held myself together, but I loved my grandmother very much. Waiting for her to die was more than I could handle. By the time we flew back east for her funeral I was emotionally drained. I had reached a point where I felt empty of every feeling, even grief. I honestly thought I would never cry again.

The day of my grandmother’s funeral my uncle handed me a letter that she had written a few days before she died. We were staying at my grandparents’ house, so I took the letter up to her old room and sat in her favorite chair (which looked out into her garden.) Carefully, I took the letter out and began to read it. The first few lines said she loved me and that I should not cry. She then told me all the things she thought I needed to hear. She spoke of her life, and what she thought I needed to face in my life. But, I did not want to hear many of the things she said. In her words there was a tone of bitterness. Yet there was also truth, it was just a truth I was not ready to acknowledge. At first, I told myself that she did not mean the things she had written. I told myself that she had been very sick when she wrote it. I told myself that these words, scrawled on this piece of paper could not be my grandmother. Yet, somewhere in my heart I knew that it was. Sadness, love, anger all blurred together. I felt overwhelmed. This letter confirmed not only that my grandmother was dead but that I had never really known her. For the first time in my life I felt the chaos of the words left unsaid but spoken all the same.

I believe that there is a map in every person’s life, which traces how they became the people that they are. My map is a kaleidoscope of words. Yet what is a written word? It is simply a shape on paper. Is it not strange then that it can make us cry, make us laugh and make us dream? Written words are not just language written down. For a written story is much different than a spoken one. With writing we can reach across the boundaries of time, place and even culture. The written word has the capability of reaching into the human soul; so that one sentence can have many different meanings for many different people. With writing we can say things we can not speak. I am an English major because I love this: the essence of writing.

 

Copyright 2001
Rebecca Hakiel

 

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA
1999-2015