At Decatur Presbyterian Church Kindergarten was a second floor room bustling with (not so) well behaved children quickly putting our blocks away after snack time. We all grabbed our mats for story time, my favorite part of the day. I snuggled in close with Tammy Tibbles, one of my many childhood friends (yes, I am still friends with my kindergarten posse). We sat completely engaged in the story, listening even as we drifted off into a deep slumber. It was perfect.
I have always loved the way stories have the power to calm the mind, stir the imagination, teach you something, or transport you to another place. Great stories can open your mind to new ideas and spark creativity. I didn’t know writing would become a passion of mine, and it was difficult to share with others once it did. There were three specific moments of embarrassment and shame that I had to overcome in order to honor the passion that I have since developed for storytelling.
Richard Giadrosich, Dave Jackson, and I ruled Chapel Hill Elementary. We terrorized the teachers and entertained our fellow classmates. With all of our distraction techniques in play, it wasn’t until the sixth grade that my caring teacher noticed I had trouble reading in class. I was sent to special reading classes that I attended a few times a week. Having to attend those classes was the first most embarrassing thing that happened to me that embedded the narrative within me that I was not, and never would be, smart enough to read, and certainly not smart enough to write.
I distinctly remember being subjected to the tortures of a mysterious machine. It shined a light onto a book line-by-line, isolation smaller passages for comprehension. Throughout the year, the teacher increased the speed at which the light moved down the page. The machine didn’t teach me to read the words on the page as much as it taught me to notice them, to memorize their shapes and colors, how big or small the letters and words were. I have always thought in terms of beauty, and I was always evaluating if they were pleasing to me or not.
This trained ability to instantly notice shapes, color, and light worked for photographs too, a skill that has served me well all my life. Truly, I have been making artistic decisions like my life depended on it since those sixth grade reading classes, because socially, it did. At the time, I didn’t understand how that moving light was helpful, but the effects of the mystery machine have lasted a lifetime. I can read a menu at any restaurant with lightning speed and decide what I want.
I attended high school in Lithonia, Georgia. I don’t like pointing fingers, but I learned very little there. I paid very little attention to things like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Milestones in school like the SAT tests held little interest for me when I could fill my mind with far more exciting things, like attending the Black Sabbath concert the night before said test. Furthermore, no one seemed to care that I scored the first negative number in history on an SAT test, I certainly didn’t.
I wasn’t lazy. I loved photography, music, and art, but my home life had become a wreck. As an outlet, I enjoyed playing drums in my band and discovering new ways to get high much more than I enjoyed attending class.
I remember walking down the hall of the high school after returning from Spring Break and being stopped by a very confused Principal. He said, and I quote, “Boy, You Graduated.” It was that day that I found out I had fulfilled all of the requirements six months early and was no longer required to attend school. Who knew?
The next ten years of my life were a blur. To this day, I am still trying to piece together exactly what happened. I remember the good parts, like moving to Paris and working as a photo assistant to some of the best artists in the world. I remember trying everything I could to become a pro photographer, but mostly I remember being on my own at age seventeen thinking, “WTF?”
As a way of coping with my chaotic life I began writing a journal. My journal was a safe place for me to put down on paper what was in my head without worrying about how it was written. I sounded out words, created endless run-on sentences, and jumped around erratically. It was cryptic and messy, but it was my path to sanity. I had to quiet the noise of my thoughts by spilling them onto the paper any way I could. I was desperate for the mental clarity and peace it brought me to exorcise those thoughts and feelings through the power of the written word.
I began to fancy the way I wrote, no matter how messy it was. I wrote the way I spoke, like I was sitting with you and sharing what was in my heart. I was telling my story.
The second most embarrassing moment in my development as a writer happened immediately after I sent my first attempt at this newsletter. It was so poorly written, with so many mistakes, that loving editors called me and asked that before I send another email to please send it to them to correct everything in it. I was mortified.
I had a steep learning curve as I struggled to learn how to write more coherently. If I wanted to share my stories, I had to learn to compose a narrative that not only conveyed my thoughts, but was reader friendly. It was so much more daunting and terrifying to bare myself to others, knowing of my literary shortcomings, than to scribble journal entries no one would see.
I asked a family member to help me with my writing.
After I begged him for help, that family member agreed to read my poorly constructed newsletter. When he did, he chose to read it out loud at the top of his lungs, mockingly pointing out every mistake. He was patronizing and dismissive as he read my inner thoughts, mispronouncing every misspelling, and verbally tripping over my grammatical mistakes in theatrical fashion. With each act of oratorial cruelty, my heart sank a bit more, my red face deepened in color, and my faith in ever becoming a writer was being diminished.
It was only after this public flogging of my admitted shortcomings that he offered corrections in a most magnanimous fashion, and called it “help”. This was the third most embarrassing thing that happened with regards to becoming a writer, but it was the last, because that’s when I got angry.
I knew I needed help and I started asking for it. I loved writing, and I actually loved how I wrote, it felt honest. It was my truth. What I needed was help from someone who would not kill or mock my voice while editing the things I struggled with like grammar, spelling, and flow. I needed someone who could “hear” me in my writing and honor that while catching errors that simply clicking spell check never could.
Enter Sonia Swensen, the other half of team SONBERT (Sonia/Robert). Sonia is my long time travel partner, and good friend. On one of our escapades I told her about my desire to develop my writing, about the cruelties I had suffered as others mocked my attempts, and my desire to write from the heart. She graciously said, “Let me take a look, I love paperwork.” I just laughed and handed it over.
I had no idea what I was about to discover in Sonia. I had found an editor who, in her words, “speaks Robert”. As with all great friendships, Sonia and I had been cultivating a special secret language for years. It consists of more than just words, it’s body movements, looks, the occasional grunt. It took a trusted and loving friend to help me develop a latent talent that had never been nurtured.
My drafts are sent to her, translated and decoded, and together we mold the words on the page into the sculpted stories you receive. I am an emotional writer, often being moved to tears as I write. Sonia has a way of understanding what I am feeling, then sharpening those thoughts like a school pencil. She is more aware of what is on the page and the mindset of the reader than I could ever be when I am writing.
She encourages me like a small child, but without superiority or condescension. She moves slowly with me through the process, and makes me feel safe. What has been terrifying for me my entire life (the process of writing), is now something I can’t live without.
What I have learned through gut-wrenching levels of embarrassment and multiple personal defeats, is that you cannot let others dictate who you are as a creative. It is important to speak your truth in any medium you feel drawn to. If like me, you don’t naturally do it well at first, ask for help, but don’t give up.
Just like in kindergarten, my adult life has been about finishing stories. I am constantly rewriting my inner narrative about who I am and what I am capable of, and I choose to write the happiest of endings. I am lucky to have spoken and unspoken ways of telling you how I feel.
I can’t thank you enough for reading the stories I share from the heart, and for all the positive feedback. Young Robert is beaming with pride, because he became something he thought wasn’t possible for him, a writer.
THIS BLOG IS GRATEFULLY EDITED BY SONIA SWENSEN