Why Write? Why Breathe?

1944- With my left hand clutching a blue Crayola crayon, I write ARLEN in shaky block letters. I’m three years old. I like the way my name looks on the page.

2011- I’m seventy now and while I’ve had three different last names and one nom de plume!, I always enjoy seeing my name in print, whether it’s digitally in an e-chapbook or on the pages of various newspapers, magazines, literary journals and anthologies.

1946- My first setback occurs when I’m five. Miss Livingston, my first grade teacher, pulls the pencil from my left hand and instructs me to use my right hand. I survive the trauma, but to this day have never forgiven her. A shy child with wire-rimmed glasses, I diligently make my way through eleven years of Brooklyn public schools, writing nicely, spelling properly, and staying in the lines, but my highest aspiration is to become a legal secretary.

1970- The world is changing for women. I start taking bigger breaths. I go back to college when my younger child is six and begin writing an op-ed column for a local newspaper. After cooking dinner, cleaning up the kitchen, I sit at my IBM Selectric to write my 20-inch column. Sometimes I write other things, hiding them from my then husband.

2011- Now I realize that even when I was deeply unhappy, hemmed in by circumstance in a suburban ranch house, I was also strangely elated. The newspaper column started out “cute”; like one about what you can find in the “Lost and Found” box at the elementary school-one left sneaker, for example. The columns became more assertive as the months went by. A few caused quite a bit of controversy, which pleased my editor.

Just yesterday, I found a 2010 blog on NorthJersey.com quoting an impassioned column I wrote for Suburban Trends in 1975 about the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. In case you haven’t noticed, women still don’t receive equal pay for equal work.

I’ll skip quickly over my careers in journalism, magazine writing, public relations and teaching at a New Jersey university. You can always Google me for a mash up if my work mixed with that of an actress with the same name who starred in a series called “baby boom”.

The oddest thing about being a writer is that you don’t have to plan it, or get an MFA. You can be a secretary, wife, mother, cupcake  baker for the PTA, whatever. But something inside you insists that you take that crayon in hand and make marks on the paper. The marks become bolder, the paper reaches more people, and then… one day you’re seventy years old, smiling as you take a deep breathe and hit send.

Arlene L. Mandell, a retired English professor, has been published in more than 300 journals. Scenes from My Life on Hemlock Street, an e-chapbook, is available free at www.echapbook.com/memoir/mandell.