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How getting caught with two cans of Olympia turned teenage Susan Straight into a writer

How getting caught with two cans of Olympia turned teenage Susan Straight into a writer
Susan Straight walks through tumbleweeds near Riverside, Calif. (Douglas McCullo)

I like to close my eyes and imagine I am still a feral child, imprinted with the first sights and sounds, because lately I am surrounded by toddlers who come to my yard obsessed with the flowers poking through my fence, with my chickens and my dog, and by elderly loved ones who speak to me forcefully only of their childhoods — vivid scenes of stolen candy hidden in woodpiles, a trapped grizzly bear strung up in a tree, an accidental glimpse of a grandmother bent over in a tub, her back scarred by slavery whips.

We remember fear and shame, I tell young writers, as if the images are painted in oil inside our skullbones. (We forget the perfect birthday party or date, if we ever had those.)

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The first sight I believe I remember — for somehow sight is different from sound or smell, and few of us remember the first taste that registered on our tongues — is the long fence along the new Pomona Freeway, just across the field from my house in Glen Avon, a tiny village, really, just below the Jurupa range where now thousands of trucks a day bear goods to and from massive "fulfillment centers." What I remember is that the chain link was covered one week with downy white feathers. The softness and trembling of the feathers in the Santa Ana wind made the fence seem ready for flight.

But, of course, it was November, and those were the feathers of newly killed turkeys in the many poultry ranches nearby, blown across the field near my house. The beautiful fence of murder. Weeks later, tumbleweeds rolled down the slopes, blown by fiercer winds, and our front door and windows were blocked by brown explosions of thistle.

The first actual place I remember, though, shaped everything in my life as a writer. It was a few months later, I know, because my mother had another baby and went back to work. She took us to a babysitter whose house was only a few yards from an orange grove. With the older kids, I went into the woods.

Author Susan Straight
Author Susan Straight (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The branches above me bloomed with white stars, and the oranges hung heavy and felt callused to my fingers, and my feet were in a furrow filled with dust. But then a roar began somewhere above. Water poured from the squat cement towers at the head of each furrow. It was terrifying. The roar came from the pump-housing, 10 feet tall like a castle with a wooden ladder propped against it, and when the boys climbed and said the water looked like boiling and someone would drown in a second if they were pushed in, I was frozen. They described more ways to die. Falling into the canal, with slick grassy sides. They said murderers left dead bodies in the isolated groves, the perfect hiding place, at night.

The mix of sweet blossoms overpowering the air, the skitter of lizards racing into the dry leaves when the water thundered into the furrows, the feel of the water on my bare feet, what looked like Rapunzel's tower from my storybooks, the ladder not for the prince but the evil unknown.

Writers. We are strange ones. We take great joy in the idea of control, in how to describe the things that frighten us, as if the perfect language will tame them.

I'm not the only one

I have been reading memoirs of some of my favorite writers: Joyce Carol Oates' "The Lost Landscape," in which she describes as a child her fascination with dangerous railroad bridges and abandoned houses, where she always went alone. Essays by Gary Soto about the alleys and yards of his childhood in Fresno, essays by Ernest J. Gaines about sudden death in bar fights and sugar cane fields. But I keep coming back to a single sentence by Toni Morrison, whose novel "Sula" changed my life when I found it at the library when I was 12, whose immense control of beautiful imagery made the fear — of a child disappearing into a river after flying from the hands of girls twirling him, of a girl cutting her own fingertip to frighten away bullies — into a living painting, as I understood it, a scene in which the writer had ultimate power.

This quote is attributed to Morrison: "I am a great writer because when I was a little girl and walked into a room where my father was sitting, his eyes would light up."

It never happened that someone in my family lit up for my stories. I became a writer at 15 because I tried to smuggle two cans of Olympia beer in my jeans jacket for boys waiting at the end of my street, and I got busted.*

Summer was trouble to my mother, and she was right. I was grounded for two months of my 14th year after the Olympia. (My poor mother didn't know that my girlfriend a block away had gained full access long before to her father's liquor-stocked outside refrigerator.) "It only takes one can of beer to get pregnant," my dad said, trying his best, and only in retrospect does that sentence sound hilarious. I cleaned house for my mother, for neighbors. I cut grass. I read the only books in our house — rows of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, my dad's John le Carré and Ken Follett novels, and my mother's new textbooks for a history class at the city college.

By the summer of my 15th year my friends had amassed impressive stores of hard alcohol, marijuana and nice clothing. The tablets were beautiful, the first time I saw a friend use two fingers to pincer out the multicolored pills from the pocket of her skintight bell bottoms. (Remember the scene in "Dazed and Confused" when someone uses pliers to pull up the zipper of tight jeans? That was us.)

But my sole pair of bell bottoms came from the used clothing store, they were not tight, and after my mother heard those friends had been picked up by police at 2 a.m., she told me I would be going to summer school every day at Riverside City College. At 38, she had decided to finish her education and had made the tennis team there. She told me to pick a class. I picked Creative Writing 11A, which had no prerequisites. It was three hours every day. I rode the bus.

I wrote about dead people. Always. My first story: Someone hikes up a San Jacinto Mountain creek, lushly described with moss-covered boulders bejeweled by droplets of mist, lizards with blue throats and then, in the azure blue pool at the base of the veil of waterfall (which I pictured like the backside of the falls on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland), a body floating facedown, shirt puffed up with moisture, hands floating like white starfish. The narrator would be killed shortly.

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My professor was Bill Bowers, who looked and sounded like no one I'd ever met. He had wire-rimmed glasses and a bushy full beard, thin in his jeans. There were maybe 30 of us in the class. He studied me when he handed back my story. I weighed 100 pounds, had blond hair to my shoulders and mostly home-sewn clothes. He'd written, "But what happens next?"

My second story featured someone on a hike in the desert with jumping cholla embedding spines into ankles, gila monsters showing orange beads all along their black scales, roadrunners, heat dancing on the golden sand and in the shady clearing of a palm-surrounded oasis near the dunes, a dead body lying facedown, desiccating in the searing sun. The narrator would be next to die.

Bill Bowers called me to his office. "Is there something you want to talk about?" he said.

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"What?" I said.

"What's with all the dead bodies?"

I told him I believed that fiction required the existence of a body. Of death. He told me I had a remarkable facility with description and narrative. "But someone doesn't always have to die in a story. What happens after the body is found? What if you let someone live?"

I wasn't sure whether to believe him. I rode the bus home. As always, the strange black-haired man who sometimes sat next to me took out his Magic Markers, inhaled deeply, closed his eyes and opened his fly. I looked away.

At home I wrote a story about an 85-year-old woman riding the bus home from the store. An old man next to her gets high from Magic Markers, his mouth strung with drool. She gets off the bus, walks with intricate observation past the vine-strung palms and porches to her tiny apartment downtown, puts away her groceries and looks into the foxed mirror to see the ravages of age on her body. I was really fascinated with the mirror and with her hands. I cleaned house for the elderly widow next door. Her hair collected fine as spun sugar in the corners of the floor. Her hands looked as if someone had inserted with a needle green yarn in a complicated pattern over her bones. She was a religious woman who gardened and taught me Bible verses, who was happy. My character was melancholy.

It was the first time I'd used my imagination to keep someone alive.

Bill Bowers called me into his office. He said I was exceptionally talented and asked me to read the story aloud in class. I didn't understand the concept of workshop. I refused. So he read it as the contribution of anonymous, and he said it was the best thing he'd seen in years. The thrill I felt, sitting at my desk, watching his face, feeling the concentration of the adults around me, was unlike anything else.

It was power. He had known exactly what to say, in his office. It was not death I wanted to write about — it was fear. He taught me that language was the only way to move that fear into every leaf and frond and tree I had conjured. Did the fear dissipate then — if only temporarily?

It always has, even 40 years later. Yes. Forty years of writing almost every day, because of that man. For writers like us, raised nearly feral, far from the centers of literature and art, it takes someone to light up and nod encouragement.

I had equal access

That summer school class cost my mother $7.50 along with a $3 student fee. In the 1975-76 catalog, "The Philosophy of the College" states the commitment to minimum cost "because of the conviction that the fullest possible development of each individual's abilities is essential to the welfare of the community, the state, and the nation." The college was "dedicated to the nurture of the free and rational mind — the mind free from unthinking conformity, bias and prejudice — the mind free to create and innovate, to move from mental adolescence to intellectual maturity."

The combination of unfettered freedom to move about the landscape, no matter the danger, and the idea that my mind should be nurtured no matter my social class, might be lost forever to large parts of America, where children either must stay inside to keep them alive or choose to stay inside to ramble in hand-held worlds, where community college, the great equalizer of the past, is now out of reach for many.

I walk the landscape of my childhood every day with a large black dog. We pass the quadrangle where I took that summer school course. We head to the Santa Ana River. Days ago, we turned from a squirrel hunt to see a large bobcat, ears elegant with black tuft, dappled markings on gold coat, studying us, then levitating into the air and twisting in flight back to the wild mustard and eucalyptus off the trail. Weeks ago we watched a woman approach in that exact part of the trail, wheeling a travel case, wearing makeup and teased hair, a cropped shirt showing cleavage and belly, beautiful as Jessica Alba when she came close. Not the kind of woman I usually see emerging from the trees.

She was covered in blood. Blood on her forehead, her hands and forearms, one smear on her shoulder, already drying to black. She studied me impassively. I couldn't tell if she had the weapon or had been the victim. I said, "Any coyotes down that way yet? We're always hoping not to run into them."

She said, "Not yet." Her power was in her calm. She had used the weapon. She said, "You be careful."

"We will," I said. "You too."

Then we passed each other and she headed toward the road and we went further into the riverbed, where in a mile we came upon police and ambulances and fire engines and a helicopter circling above us. A man had been stabbed in an encampment and police were searching for the assailant. I told one officer about the woman, and he said dismissively, "It couldn't have been a woman."

We walked back home, the dog and me, and I could see the agate of her eyes, the lift at the corner of her lips, the way blood had settled into the knuckles of her fingers when she brushed by us on her way to the next story.

Straight has finished a new novel, "The Shipwreck Bed," and a story collection, "Take the Golden State."

Critics at large — In an ongoing series, our critics at large consider how we read and write and what that means for our culture. In this essay, award-winning novelist Susan Straight, one of the 10 distinguished writers on our panel, considers violence and place and how important it is to have one person light up and encourage the young, feral writer.

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