A lot of people ask me how did I become a writer. I’m never really sure how to answer that question because there weren’t any writers in my family, no one who encouraged me to become a writer, nor any footsteps to follow.
My mother was the librarian at our school where my three sisters and I attended. She was an avid reader of books, but also of newspapers, so reading was always a big part of our home life. I always say, you can’t be a writer without being a reader. I didn’t read widely but I read deeply. My favorite book was The Secret Garden; I must have read that book a dozen times looking for clues into my own life.
For my 10th birthday, my mother and father gave me one of those little diaries with a lock and key attached, and I started to write poems, record my feelings, thoughts and secrets. For family birthdays, I wrote down my poems and gave them away as birthday gifts. I was amazed that sometimes my words brought tears to my mother or father’s eyes. It was then I realized that words have the power to open/touch hearts.
In college, I took a poetry-writing course and loved it. It was the first time I had read any contemporary poems, and I was hooked! I didn’t know until then that writers could get their voices and hearts down on the page.
I applied and was accepted into to Columbia University’s M.F.A. Program in Writing. I studied with incredible poets such as Stanley Kunitz, Joseph Brodsky and Jorie Graham.
During this time, I also became interested in teaching writing. I took a teaching writing class with Lucy Calkins across the street at Teachers College, and after class one day she invited me to speak about poetry with kindergarten kids at PS 321 in Brooklyn. I was amazed at the beauty and open heartedness of the poems that the kids spoke, drew and wrote that day. I collected their poems into a small anthology, brought them into my colleagues at Columbia University, and read a few poems out loud not telling them that they were from kids in Brooklyn. Someone in my class commented, “This is the best contemporary poetry we’ve read in years.” I fell in love with teaching after that and was invited to become a founding member and staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.