Many worlds, many maps. Photo by Lena Bell on Unsplash

My secret writing life began when I was a little girl, although I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t put much of it on paper then, so who would’ve called it writing? Back then, writing was something I mainly did in school, at the behest of a teacher. Outside of school, I used my time for reading, anything I could get my hands on. I haunted the children’s section of the public library like a spirit unrequited; I can still remember exactly how the mythology section of the stacks was arranged. And from years later, when I’d graduated to the adult stacks, I recall the pockets I frequented — Steven King, Agatha Christie, Victoria Holt, Robin Cook. My taste ran to bestsellers then. It would be a while before I tired of their stories, so reassuringly predictable.


My secret writing life began as revisions of the day I’d just lived through, as if there were the possibility that I might wake up, Groundhog-Day-style, to relive the most difficult scene with a chance of doing it right. Countless times, I found myself in my life tongue-tied, knowing I wanted to say I didn’t agree with someone, hating myself for being afraid to challenge people or for not finding the right words. My heart would pound if I so much as thought to assert myself. I’d flush and sweat, and later, feel defeated. Too shy to say what ought to be said, what a hero would’ve stood for. And so, I’d lie in bed in the friendly dark and rehearse. My speeches were righteous, eloquent. I knew exactly what to say to bring the bullies and the pompous to their knees. I could, with my own form of “friends, Romans, countrymen,” set anyone into their rightful place when I was cloaked in darkness and pajamas.


My secret writing life began as scripts for upcoming events, scenarios I anticipated and wanted to prepare for, as if life were improv comedy I could grow more natural in by practicing a prompt over and over. I wasn’t completely wrong about that, it turns out; much of life is made of set-pieces of interaction, and parts of it do get easier.

As a schoolkid I would visualize myself standing up in front of the class with my 3-by-5 notecards numbered in my hands — in the vision, they’d be warm and capable, but when the day came, my clammy, quivering hands would somehow be ice-cold and sweaty at once. In the safe space of my mind, I’d run through the report, point by point, arrive at the triumphant end, and run it again, over and over, trying to make it come true when I needed it. But those one-acts only resembled the world I’d enter the next day in the way that any play is only a version, cleaner, smoother, and better crafted than the real. Still, they comforted me.


My secret writing life began in the dark. I would lie awake imagining scenarios that were entirely fictional, based on nothing I thought would come true. Those visions, too, were a way of taming the chaotic and unpredictable world that contained so much more than I thought I could endure. At any time during the day, something could happen that I had not anticipated; I could find myself unwittingly in unmapped territory, with no idea which predators lurked in the bushes, but certain that they did. Wrong moves were a constant threat. I moved carefully, kept vigilant watch on those around me.

In the safety of my own room, I primed myself for dreams I wouldn’t remember with daydreams I could design. A character in my own stories. Sometimes they were escapes to a previous century, a Louisa-May-Alcott world of wholesome cousins and fresh air, or the resourceful sod-house prairie lives of Laura and Mary, Ma and Pa. Sometimes I followed along with elves and dwarves in Middle Earth, an elf myself, of course. The stories always knew what would happen next. I’d imagine terrible things, unimaginable things — what if my parents died? What would I do? How would I live? If I could imagine it, the event would no longer be unknown. It could not shock me into paralysis if I’d seen it already in my mind. In that way, stories became a map of the world. And even when the world proved not to conform to the outlines I’d mapped, I still felt safer.


So much of the secret writing life begins in the dark, in the quiet, in the private spaces of our lives where we hold conversations with our own subdivided selves, trying to reconcile. Who are we? The secret writing life is about telling that story, over and over again. It cultivates a hedge against the formlessness of the world outside and contains the formlessness of the world within. It maps the boundaries, but it also invents them, negotiates treaties, ratifies.

And when the secret writing life becomes the public writing life, whenever it does, however it does, the two spheres remain connected umbilically, though it’s never clear, from then on, which is mother and which is child. You’d think that putting words on paper would be a one-way street, an act of purging or of release. But what you write turns back and writes you. Your memories become the stories you’ve told about what you remember. Your characters, all those lives you’ve drawn on paper, are people you’ve inhabited in worlds as real as the one you’re homesteading in now. You live through and in them. They live through and in you, world-traveler that you’ve become.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.