When I was five years old, I wrote my first and only book and gave it to my mother for her birthday. It was called 'The Horses of Rainbow Valley' and it was five pages long, bound with a piece of string I had found in the garden. It was full of drawings of fairies and spiders and flower petals. I presented the book to my mother, then watched as she took her red pen to correct the spelling and punctuation. Having written over almost everything, she returned the book to me. 'The structure is unsound, and the pacing is too slow,' she said. 'If you want to be a writer, you have to learn to rewrite.' I tore the book in half and started to cry.
There was one story in her collection that my mother never read to me at bedtime. It was called 'The Zebras of Cloud Valley' and it told of a young girl cheering her sick mother by writing a book for her. Critics consider it to be one of her most moving stories and it has often been anthologised.
A Serpent's Tooth and Other Stories (Penguin, 1980)
By the time I was thirteen years old, I had come to realise I would always be a minor character in my mother's life. She had never done more than sketch me in. When I found my birth certificate one day, while helping to recover more of her lost notes, I was thrilled. I had always hoped I was adopted and on the certificate, my mother's name was listed as 'Charlene Boag'. But when I showed her, she just laughed. 'That's me,' she said. 'Would you rather read a book by Charlene Boag or Margaret Hately?' She had become her pen name.
As a teenager, I was sick of books, sick of writing. I didn't like to bring my friends home because of the way my mother looked at them. She unconsciously measured people for a story as an undertaker, might measure them for a coffin. One time, at dinner, after she jotted down something I had just said onto the tablecloth, I shouted, 'Can't you stop writing for one minute? I'm talking, not dictating!' I was old enough by then to understand her stories, and I hated the way she had killed my father in one of them, and how she had stolen the birthmark on my wrist and given it to a fictional girl, prettier and more bookish than me.
Once I was older, I began to notice my mother's cigarettes often contained something other than tobacco. When I asked her, she said, 'I'm researching a drug scene.' In the mornings when I found her asleep on the couch with two empty wine bottles, she would say, 'I'm researching alcohol.' I never introduced her to David, my first boyfriend. No men ever came to our house. My mother said the only men she wanted in her life were Hemingway and Salinger.
She eventually met David three days after my sixteenth birthday, when she came home unexpectedly from a conference. He and I were in bed together. 'What the hell is going on here?' my mother shouted and I screamed back, 'I'm researching fucking!' She left without another word. That scene became the climax for 'A Serpent's Tooth'. I read it in Sydney years later, after I left home.
I had no desire to study English as my mother wished. In fact, I was in danger of failing the subject at school. I just couldn't bear to open the books. I think my mother secretly hoped that by the time I went to university, her stories would be part of the curriculum and I would be required to read them along with Lawson and the rest. But I was a feminist. I didn't want to study the words of dead white males. ('I don't care about women's rights, only women's writing,' my mother said.) I wanted to be a doctor, and I was accepted to study medicine in Sydney. On the day I was to leave, my mother was sitting at her desk as usual, the light through the stained glass colouring the smoke that hung over her head.
Excerpted from The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill. Copyright © 2013 by Ryan O'Neill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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