Tamara didn’t start out as Tamara. She began merely as Tam, a skinny girl with pale straggly hair, like something out of a Depression-era Dorothea Lange, growing up on a farmranch. She was the youngest of seven—suckin’ the hind titty, as her grandmother Ma Strong used to say—and as such, she was the meekest, the smallest, the quietest. Her voice, if she had one, was drowned out by the din. She was not made to take baths, her clothes were hand-me-downs from her brothers, and she had the habit curling her body in on itself, her gaze skittering around the edges, so people’s eyes did not catch and hold upon her. Tam believed she was invisible.
People in books weren’t invisible, though. No matter what their characters, they had been made visible, and their lives had being. They were presence, even if they were little girls raised on farmranches. Books were the insides of people all laid open before her, accessible, meaningful. Meanwhile, people in the world itself were this bewildering chaos of conflicting desires, with no reason nor pattern. She searched for patterns in people in the world. Using the Smith Corona typewriter leftover from her father’s Army days, Tam typed up forms, little blank underlines striping the page, and then retyped the same in order to have multiple copies. Then she interviewed her father and her mother and her brothers and sisters. It made her feel better, as if she had quantified and categorized them, pinned them like a bug to Styrofoam, though in reality she was no closer to understanding them than before.
It did not occur to her to write a story, to shape these bits into narrative, until her grade school girlfriend wrote a tale that climaxed with a head rolling in a gutter. It had not occurred to her that writers were physical beings like her mom and dad and brothers and sisters, that these artifacts of language did not just appear whole upon the firmament, a miracle. And so she began to write stories, the most memorable called “A Magic Locket” about a girl who slips back in time to become her own great grandmother, her own progenitor. Tam’s writing expanded to other things. Her deluge of emotions overflowed into journals. She wrote her boyfriend’s English papers. She wrote a humor piece for the small town rag about a gay couple who visited the family’s dude ranch. She even won honorable mention at a regional conference for a poem. This so emboldened her that, when she went off to college, she made a tentative stab at self and changed her name to Tamara.
But she did not call herself nor think of herself as a writer, and no one else called her a writer. It was something she did, unconnected with these “writers,” these quasi-numinous beings who dwelt on another plain of existence. No one she knew was a writer. They were farmers and teachers and waitresses and bartenders and drunks. One thing she did know—the world was a place where, in order to have food and clothing, every waking moment had to be spent working, and all a person’s worth was tied to work. Still, when she went to college, she allowed herself to claim journalism for a semester, until working two jobs to put herself through firmed her resolve to find a high-paying occupation, namely engineering. She toiled away, trying to explain the world in numbers, but it was not her natural language, so she nearly flunked out. She quit instead.
Through it all, she read and she wrote. She allowed herself one English course a semester—cravings outweighing, for once, the financial considerations. She manufactured justifications addressed from her inner creative to her inner realist: there had to be some pleasure in life, and some people fished, some played pool, and some read. And read and read and read and read. She haunted the university library. She bought books at times she wasn’t sure she could pay rent. She volunteered at an archive doing research, reading other people’s papers. She helped friends with resumes, and she sent off articles to newspapers. You see, reading and writing were not worth money, not something to be paid for. It was something she did because she had to. But then, as luck would have it, she fell into a position as a technical editor and was paid to read.
Even so, in her imagination, her inner world, she wasn’t a writer. How could she be? She was just Tamara. But then the unimaginable materialized in the words of a man, who said, “You love English. Why don’t you get your degree in English?” It came to her as warmth on an early spring day. Is it any wonder that she married that man? Slowly, a class at a time, she worked toward her degree, backing her way into it, in case it saw what she was up to and turned tail and ran. It was a shy and nimble beast, this creature called self. Even then, she did not embraced her true love, fiction. That atavistic farmranch brain would not yet relinquish its hold. As a working editor already, a degree in English could be justified as its natural extension, but fiction was a journey above the firmament, and she had no wings.
After thirteen years of off-again on-again university, she received her bachelor’s in English and then in two years her master’s. No, not “received,” that passive construction, as if the thing were placed from above upon her supine form. No, she battled for it tooth and claw. She took her spear and her sword and she fought the Janis-faced beast and she sheared off its head and put her foot upon its heart and held up the prize in her outstretched fist. “I am!” she yawped and began to spin a tale.