What makes us write? Anne Lamott at some point (I think it was in Bird by Bird) argues that writers write because they were silenced as children. There was, early on, some story that badly needed to be told and wasn’t.
I’m pretty sure a lot of writers who write about writing have made similar suppositions about why we write. We were forbidden to say what we needed to say, or were simply ignored when we had something important to say, and so we resorted to writing things down: Paper has to listen, and what we needed was to be heard.
Nonsense. People write because they like words, and they especially like the language of written words, which is different from the language of spoken words. And that’s why people write. Plain and simple. No different from going into mathematics because you like math.
Consequently, I would argue that you don’t need to be deeply psychologically damaged or come from a horrifically dysfunctional family where the truth about things was carefully avoided to have a story to tell, or to want to write your stories down and show them to other people.
As it turns out, a lot of people have stories to tell that they were unable to tell as children. Some of them turn out to be writers. So the argument has this weird resemblance to the truth. That doesn’t make it true.
Because not all of them do. Some of them just force their stories on strangers on the bus who would rather be reading on their Kindles or doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, or really anything at all other than listening to the crazy person on the bus. Maybe writers just don’t ride the bus.
But I am starting to stray somewhat from the point.
In my own case, I do have to wonder just a teensy-tinsy bit whether Anne Lamott might be right. Because I couldn’t speak. On and off. For about five years.
It was never a conscious decision, although I have at times assumed that it was. There were, in fact, incredibly powerful reasons why I would have thought I shouldn’t speak and that I would be far better off, far safer if I didn’t speak. But it doesn’t happen like that.
Children between the ages of two and seven–which is the age I was when I was selectively mute–are not capable of making thought-out, well considered decisions. They just find themselves doing things, or not doing things. And, in my case, I found myself not speaking.
I remember it quite distinctly. One morning, I hung up my favorite red sweater on its peg next to the door in my kindergarten classroom, and Mrs. Beason asked me a question. When I turned around to answer, there were no longer any words in my head. This was completely unlike having a word on the tip of your tongue that you can’t quite remember. It was total. Quite suddenly, I had no memory of language at all.
That wasn’t the first time it happened, but that is the emblematic moment for me: when I turned to answer a simple question like, “How are you today?” Or “Do you want milk at lunchtime?” and “fine” and “no” were no longer there to use. Every other time was more or less exactly like that.
I imagine it must be like having a stroke. You reach in a familiar direction, towards a well-worn skill, and the skill is no longer there. You fumble madly in the air towards it, but it doesn’t come. Meanwhile, everyone looks at you in perplexity, possibly a little worried. Where did “fine” go? How did you manage to lose such an easy thing? But I kept losing it, all the way through first grade.
Selective mutism is linked to social anxiety. The idea that children who are deeply traumatized commonly become unable to speak is mainly a myth. However, the first time I actually recall being unable to speak was lying in a white-sheeted hospital bed with raised metal bars when a sheriff named Ricardo asked me what had been done to me. I was about two years old.
That first time, the strange sensation of wordlessness remained with me for some time. If you are a chatterer, silence within your own mind is a peculiar way of being–like full-time Vipassana yoga. If you are a toddler, and used to chattering about doggies and birds and colors and new words–I mean, everything, because toddlers don’t have any mental filters–the strangeness of silence is even more new and unnerving. And, I guess, therefore memorable.
Safely in foster care, I did eventually start talking again. After that, the mutism became intermittent, but that has its own disadvantages. My muteness struck unexpectedly, randomly. Without warning, the avalanche of what I wanted to say could at any moment melt mysteriously, mid-air. It was embarrassing, like suddenly losing control of one’s bowels in public.
To conceal it, I learned to talk with my body, to shrug, shake my head, nod, point. I became a “quiet” child. A “shy” child. In reality, I couldn’t shut up. My head was stuffed full of words to the point of bursting, but I became afraid to use them. Sometimes I couldn’t speak, and sometimes I chose not to because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able.
Mutism has shaped my view of myself. I remain, in my own mind, shy, socially anxious. I am not. But I still expect to be intermittently speechless, to lose all sense of words or how to string them together into sentences to express thoughts. Writing is my tattoo–permanent, unloseable.