An Indian princess opened the door for me. I found her waiting on a shelf between the faded red cloth covers of my first chapter book. She crouched behind a tree on page one, her black braids and fringed buckskin dress sketched above the opening paragraph. With a raised hand she pointed into the belly of the book so that is why I chose her.
My mother waited patiently while I drew down volume after volume from the shelves, knowing it had to be just the right one. This first trip to our local library marked my graduation from picture books to chapter books, a momentous event not to be hurried. Each cover needed to be judged on its appeal, each tome weighed in my small hands, pages thumbed through and illustrations perused. Then came the careful reading of the first few paragraphs, a slow process for a novice chapter book reader. The perfect choice must meet all my mysterious criteria. When the Indian princess beckoned me into her world, I knew. She rode proudly home on my lap with my fidgety hands on the cover itching to let her out to begin her story.
So began construction of the revolving door between my two worlds. In my exterior world I lived contentedly with family and common surroundings. But my interior world whispered around the edges waiting for any opportunity to grab my imagination by the hand and run. It teased my waking hours with daydreams, frustrating my parents and teachers with my lack of focus. At night it held sway, filling my mind’s eye with fantastic scenes and stories until I sank reluctantly into sleep.
Now I discovered a paradise of books legitimizing the stories inside my head; books revealing the interior worlds of others who possessed the gift of describing them in words. The door swung wide for a myriad of tales to march in, populating my world with rich characters and scenes often more real to me than everyday life.
Stepping through C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe door, I befriended Edmund and Lucy in the land of Narnia. The great lion, Aslan, evoked a childish reverence foreshadowing a future faith in his prototype. The miniature world of The Borrowers found me prone on my bedroom floor acting out their story with dollhouse furniture. The Secret Garden sprouted my temporary green thumb and I begged my parents for riding lessons while reading Black Beauty. J.R.R. Tolkien’s wizard, Gandalf, took on the bushy gray brows and twinkling eyes of my teacher, Mr. Smith, who read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings aloud while doing all the voices.
Fed by Tolkien’s intricate fantasy realms, my unfettered imagination was reluctant to return to the mundane reality of the classroom. I could not contain the words and worlds spilling out on page after page of cheap notebook paper. Gypsies and haunted forests, princesses and magic spells pushed their way through my pen, seeking form and voice in my amateur compositions.
The ravenous craving of a new writer could not ingest enough words to satisfy a desire to express my heart. Subconsciously my vocabulary and writing skills developed with the countless books I devoured to feed my inexhaustible appetite for stories. I saw the world as one continuous tale I longed to transcribe, if only a fraction of it.
Behind the exterior world of a shy, awkward girl a parallel world teemed with all that I did not possess. Adventure, beauty, humor and high virtue stumbled for expression in my writing, like infants learning to walk. At first I hugged my feeble attempts to myself, not ready to expose them to criticism. The exercise of writing brought a satisfaction wholly my own — a solitary catharsis not dependent on affirmation from others. But what good was a story written down if not shared? If one day mine was to be the book taken down from a shelf then I needed to let others into my interior world. The door revolved both ways.
So I released a few of my literary offspring to those I knew would treat them gently and to my wonder they were affirmed as showing promise. This changed everything. Books were the places in which I could be lost but now they became where I could be found. Reading for pleasurable escape evolved into exploring literature to learn from successful authors. Could I subtly comment on the social mores of the day like Jane Austen, create and populate whole worlds like Tolkien, craft an endearing heroine like Lucy Maud Montgomery? Could I spread my own heart across a blank page for readers to either disregard or identify with?
Years later, the door to my interior world still stands open for either response. It is the risk I take as a writer who chronicles from the heart. Numerous books have entered to refresh, stimulate and feed that world. I leave the door revolving in the wind. Perhaps an Indian princess will pass through.
“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” – from “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery