Often times when people find out that I am a published writer, they ask me how I started. I am not sure I know. I remember the pleasure of having a letter to the editor published in the Pittsburgh Press when I was 11, so I guess I would like to point that out. And that probably means my use of the language wasn’t half bad.
Much of my success, in fact, was in writing letters. I wrote to a man I had seen in “Wild Kingdom” and asked if I could accompany him on his next trip to live among the Jivaro headhunters in the Amazon. I was shocked when he said yes, but he also told me it would cost over $ 1,000. My parents were furious when I asked them for money. I think I was 12 when it happened.
My writing was very formal, and my letters were particularly so. I went to Catholic school where we learned how to create an appropriate greeting and a glowing closing. It never occurred to me that there were other possibilities.
Then when I was 13, I went to summer camp and met a girl named Mary Jo. We loved each other so much that we decided to write letters to each other at the end of the camp. I remember when his first letter arrived and I opened it. The very first word fascinated me. And that scared me to death.
Mary Jo began her letter with the word “Hiya!” I was half afraid to read beyond. Salvation ? It wasn’t even a real word. Salvation ? And guess how she signed. To give up? She said “see you later”. I was flabbergasted.
I remember wanting to show Mary Jo’s letter to someone, anyone, but I didn’t dare. Mary Jo had broken all the rules of letter writing. I couldn’t denounce her! And more importantly, I would probably be told not to write to him again, just as I was ordered never to attempt to contact the man who had lived among the Jivaro headhunters.
Mary Jo and I eventually lost touch, but during our semester correspondence she relaxed me. I remember starting a letter with her with “Hello!” but, even as I was writing it, I expected a nun to magically appear and slap my hand with a ruler. When it turned out that there was no nun, I ended my letter with “Goodbye!” Immediately, for fear of being caught and unmasked, I put a three-cent stamp on the envelope and ran to the mailbox around the corner.
After this first time, it got easier.
Mary Jo and I both abused the exclamation mark around this time, and I have had to teach myself, over the years, not to. I guess it was a teenage thing. Ditto our use of the large round bone that we used to point to our Is. I shouldn’t say “our use”. Everything I learned that year I copied from Mary Jo. I was his apostle.
I don’t know where she got the ideas she used when she put a pen on paper. She lived in New Kensington, PA, and I lived in the Lawrenceville neighborhood, a few blocks from downtown Pittsburgh. Maybe New Kensington was very avant-garde. Or Mary Jo didn’t go to Catholic school. That was it, I decided. Mary Jo must have been enrolled in public school! (This exclamation mark is justified.)
In college, I got pretty good at combining trendy slang with heavy scholarly thinking. I remember an article I returned on the English poet John Milton. The title alone was gripping: “It’s a great poem, John, but is it autobiographical?” “
Ah, Mary Jo, over 65 years after the day we first met, let me say fervently, “Thank you, honey! “
Take-out? Writers learn all the time and not always in a classroom.
Banks is a contributing columnist for The Advertiser. She lives in Bastrop and is the author of several novels. See his work on carolynbanks.com.