One of my twitter followers asked me when I knew I was a writer. It’s not an unusual question. I also get asked when I knew I was an artist, when I knew I was different, when I knew I was never going to fit inside the world around me. The answer is the same to all the questions. It was the day I learned to dance with my demons.
I did not have a happy or easy childhood. Much of it was brutal and traumatic. Before I started school, it was just me, my grandmother, my mother, and my younger brother. My father was the only American in the family. He spoke only English. It was normal for us to not speak English when he wasn’t around, which was frequently. On the rare times he was home, he went into a rage when I no longer understood him when he talked to me. I forgot English because no one I was around spoke it except him.
I don’t remember who gave me my first notebook, but its purpose was to help me practice English so I would no longer have to suffer my father’s beatings when he was home. By then I was in school, and like most immigrant children, I picked up the language quickly. I didn’t need the notebook to practice.
I used it to draw pictures instead, the kind of pictures a depressed, isolated, child draws when hope is something so out of reach it becomes a fantasy. I have vague memories of what I drew, but not of the reactions of a teacher when she saw my notebook. I still remember the look on her face. She was clearly bothered by what I drew.
But it was a different time then. There wasn’t much she could do to help the kid that drew those pictures, but feel sorry for me. I remember hating her pity and feeling ashamed of it. I stopped drawing. But the urge to create was not something easily set aside.
I began to write stories in my notebooks. I was the main character. My father was always the monster. My mother and grandmother were always the first to end up his victims. I was always the one saved because I knew how to hide from him. I knew all the good hidey holes, all the secret places in the desert I could walk to and disappear inside the canyons. And while I was gone and safe, another bigger, stronger monster would tear my father to pieces and save us all. It was brutal stuff.
I filled up one notebook and immediately started another. I still remember how it felt to write those stories. During the time I wrote, the demons sat quietly and left me alone. I wasn’t depressed anymore. I didn’t think constantly of ways to kill myself.
And I wrote in English because it was far safer to record my thoughts that way than it was to draw pictures. My father was illiterate. He couldn’t read nor write. My words were private and all mine. Until the day I realized my mother was not illiterate and was secretly reading my notebooks.
I began to make up stuff then, stories that had nothing to do with me but were meant to punish her for reading my notebooks. Like most sensitive children in abusive situations, I learned early to watch for danger signs. I knew which drink was the one to send my father into a violent rage. I knew which behavior from me would disturb my mother.
I knew how to scare her, because I knew she struggled with her own demons. She drank vodka then to escape the miserable existence she found herself living. I can still smell it on her breath all these years later. Her life was far from the dream my father promised her when he brought us to America. It was a betrayal, a prison she couldn’t escape. He would come home and beat her, she would drink, and then pass out, leaving me alone with him.
I wrote a story about a little girl who was captured by a monster while her mother slept. I described horrible things the monster did to that little girl, things that meant little to me other than in the fantasy world of imagination. But when my mother read that story, I saw the horror on her face. She saw something in my words I never wrote. But her reaction made me feel strong, it made me feel powerful to know I held such an effective weapon in my hands. I was about 7 or 8 years old.
That was the moment I understood what it meant to dance with my demons. In the next few years I filled my notebooks with their voices, not mine. I gave all the ugliness, all the brutality of my life a voice to have its say. And slowly the thoughts of suicide lessened. Slowly I began to see myself differently, to see my place in the world differently. I learned to give all those thoughts, all that despair, all the moments of extreme depression to the demons and let them write my words.
It took me several years to turn back to art, and when I did I understood how it lived in me, what it wanted from me, and how to make it another voice for my demons. But it also disturbed me, because unlike words, what I drew, painted, sculpted was clearly the voice of the demons. It was like stepping into a crowded room naked, exposed, and vulnerable. It made everything inside me visible.
By the time I graduated from high school my friends were pretty much the same. We were artists, writers, musicians. We knew how to make the demons dance. We were kids who never fit inside the parameters of the ordinary world, because we weren’t ordinary and never would be.
That’s when I learned we also lived in a world that expected us to feed those demons with one hand tied behind our backs. There was little support for the compulsion to create that defined us. It was seen as a hobby, an amusement to practice in our free time when we had a day off. We were never expected to choose it as a career path. That was unrealistic. That was impossible.
That’s why so many creatives in this country often slip over into mental illness. When you deny someone the right to live as themselves, to work as they were meant to work, you slowly chip away at the social constructs that allowed them to live within the acceptable boundaries of society. You steal their soul and then expect them to be some absurd concept of normal. Not all are strong enough to survive this stripping away of their vital self.
I have always worked to support my art and writing. My aunt and uncle were classical musicians. They taught piano to practice their art. I still remember when my uncle came to America. We lived in San Francisco then, and I just started school. He would wait for me to come out of the building and then we would walk the streets to look for a place with a piano he could play. We stopped at coffee shops, book stores, music stores, even a church once, just so he could play for an hour or so.
I often think about those who heard him play. He was a child prodigy, an exceptionally talented pianist. I still remember the silence that filled whatever place we found that day, the awestruck silence of those who recognized a gifted moment just blessed their day.
I learned what it meant to not only need to express what lived inside, but also how the raw honesty of that expression affected others. I knew when he despaired over the separation from his wife and daughters because I heard it in his music. And so did everyone else. It was the first time I saw people cry when he played. He moved them to tears with his need to express the despair, the loneliness inside himself.
And afterwards when the demons were back at rest and we could calmly walk around and look for an ice cream cone instead of a piano, I learned there couldn’t be one without the other. And that’s the day I began to understand without the demons I really had little to say. They gave my art, my writing, my very existence the authenticity to create as myself.
My new novel about the pandemic WHEN THE LAST OCEAN DIES is now available on Amazon. It’s about solitude, artists, musicians, creativity, and the awesome life-changing power of love.
Kate Taylor’s Books and Art Ursine Logic