Co-writing with Myself by Laurel Snyder
When I was a kid, my parents had amazingly vast bookshelves, and when I got bored on rainy days, I’d sometimes pull a book off the shelf. Often, I had absolutely no interest in what I found. I distinctly remember NOT reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.
But now and then, I’d find a book with scribbles in it, a book my mom or dad had written all over, and that I loved, no matter how dull the book. There was something magical about the old notes. I felt like I was traveling into the past, peering into the people my parents had been Once Upon a Time. When they were young.
Of course, eventually I ran to my own bookshelves and began scribbling on the pages. I wasn’t really sure what to write, but I wanted to leave a trace, a message to my future self. Or for some imaginary other person who might find my books someday. I wanted to write something. For posterity.
Flash forward! It’s 2011. I’m sitting in the basement at my mother’s house. She’s asked me to go through the old books and take what I want. She’s thinking of selling the house in a few years. “There will be yardsales,” she’s warned me.
Now, for the most part I’ve dragged my childhood favorites with me through life—to college and beyond. My Thirteen Clocks and my Half Magic and my Dicey’s Song and my Frog and Toad and my Once and Future King. I’m not expecting to find much in the basement. But then I see it, the old faded purple paperback. “Oh!” I say, as I pull it from the shelf. “Oh, wow.”
The thing is, I’d forgotten all about this book, this weird thrift-store find. It’s a very adult title, long out of print. Academic. I didn’t fully grasp it at age ten, and I probably can’t wade through it even now. It’s a collection of essays about Anna Pavlova’s life and work, which I’d mostly bought for the wonderful black and white pictures. But included in the book is a section of Pavlova’s own diaries about her childhood, and that I’d read.
I run my hand over the stained cover, and in the far reaches of my brain, a little bell rings. Memory surfaces.
When I open the book, what do I see? My own scribbles. Embarrassing scribbles. In fact, my ten year old self is probably ready to kill my 41 year old self right this minute, for sharing them with you here. But the scribbles are true and full of passion. They capture the great love I had for ballet at that age, and for Pavlova. A love I’d essentially forgotten. Until now.
As I flip through the book, I’m overwhelmed at the details I’ve let slip away. Anna! How have I managed to forget her? Her frail bones and washerwoman mama. I’d been obsessed! Year after year I begged my mom to make me a swan costume for Halloween. (She never did—one of many unforgettable crimes.)
Sitting there in the basement, I get to thinking about Anna’s story. About how much it meant to me, as a kid. How she overcame so much—poverty, revolution, war, impatience, a body that was “all wrong” for ballet, bullies in school. It all seemed so intense, and destined.
Then I look at the scribbles, and I think about my ten-year-old self. At that age, I’d just figured out I wanted to be an author someday, but I still wanted to be a dancer, too. I think about how much Laurel-the aspiring-writer/ballerina would have loved to turn these scribbles into an actual book.
It was an incredible moment. This realization that I could do that now. That my kid-self really had—through the power of books and my own scribbles—time traveled into the future, to help my grownup self out. And that my grownup self was now in position to assist my kid-self. I got up off the floor and left the basement that day with an idea for a new book.
And so here, years later, is SWAN: the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova. A collaboration of Laurel Snyder (age ten) and Laurel Snyder (age 41). It’s the book my ten year old self would have written and published if that had seemed remotely possible back then, with extraordinary illustrations by Julie Morstad (of which the younger Laurel would most certainly have approved).
But beyond SWAN, this whole experience has been a wake-up-call for me, an important lesson. A reminder of all the things I’ve forgotten, all the things I knew as a kid, that I don’t know anymore.
Kids are so smart. Kids risk everything when they write. They are earnest and passionate and they pour it all out on the page. They haven’t learned yet to hide their feelings. When I saw these notes from my younger self, I was reminded of that. Of the power of a number 2 pencil in a grubby uncensored hand. Of my own desire to get back to that place as much as possible.
Of course, my two sons aren’t terribly appreciative of the summer journals they’re currently being forced to keep right now, as a result of my valuable reminder/lesson. Poor guys.
“What’s the point of writing things down, Mom? I don’t have anything to say.”
But I’m pretty sure they do…
Laurel Snyder is the author of many books for kids (and a few for adults), including Bigger than a Bread Box, and Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher. Visit her at laurelsnyder.com or follow her on Twitter @laurelsnyder.