I never thought I would be a writer. Growing up, reading was a constant escape, offering worlds within worlds in which I could lose myself. Becoming a novelist seemed fantastical, impossible. It wasn’t that writers themselves were exotic to me. My dad is one, the author of more than fifteen books, and so is my mother, who’s written countless short stories and, in recent years, two novels. But, despite watching my parents toil at their desks, it was hard for me to imagine how books came to be. My favorite ones—whether Little Women or The Great Brain or the Oz books—didn’t seem written so much as conjured.
Lately I’ve begun thinking about how all that changed for me: the moment when writing went from seeming a remote kind of magic to something one created—built—word by word, diligent effort by diligent effort.
Last Christmas Eve, I went with my parents to see the latest movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth . Early into the film, Lady Macbeth, played by Marion Cotillard, is trying to boost her courage for the bloody pursuit of power to come. In a famous soliloquy, she calls upon the darker spirits to “unsex me” and to fill her body “from the crown to the toe top-full” with “direst cruelty.” To strip her of any feminine “weakness.”
Watching the scene with my dad was particularly apt. Suddenly, I was reminded of something I’d long forgotten: how, more than two decades before, I wrote my first “A” college paper on this very soliloquy. The grade, however, isn’t why I remember the experience. I remember it because it changed the way I look at writing, and for that (among countless other gifts, including the capacity to quote scenes from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets verbatim), I owe my dad everything.
I was eighteen and I was struggling. Always at the top of the class in high school English, I arrogantly chose to take not the University of Michigan’s required English Composition class but instead its more demanding equivalent: Shakespeare Comp. As it turned out, the leap from the five-paragraph high school essays to something more sophisticated—literary analysis, close reading, a complicated argument—didn’t come easily.
By Thanksgiving break, I already felt like a failure. Saddled with the task of completing a paper on Macbeth , I sought my dad’s help. We talked for a long time about the play, and about my favorite character, the darkly complicated Lady Macbeth. I’d been drawn to her “unsex me” soliloquy because it seemed so badass, so Sylvia Plath, so riot grrrl. But how, I asked my dad, do I write five pages about it? With a thesis?
“Try reading it again,” he said. “Try reading it again thinking about her, and what makes her interesting to you. Think about what she wants.”
So I settled down with it. I read again, and again. I thought about what Lady Macbeth wanted—power, control, agency. And what was holding her back—old laws, cultural standards about womanhood. I looked at the words together, but also separately. Crown as in top of head, but maybe also a reference to the king’s crown? And these images that repeat: breasts, milk, blood. I broke it down. And then it happened.
In a sharp burst, I started to see so much more than I ever had before. In my memory, it’s visual: The text just kind of exploded and I felt like I could see how many shimmering fragments had been created to make the soliloquy this utterly whole and perfect thing. I’d found a way in. “Literature”—the language bits of it—broke open for me and I was able to see, for the first time, in part, how a piece of writing was made, created, constructed, word by word, syllable by rhythmic syllable. It was the moment I saw how, assembled a certain way (or another way, or another) words can yield so much more than the sum of their parts. I’d never thought of writing that way before. How a spell gets made so that the spell can be cast.
I remember with such vividness sitting in our living room that Thanksgiving weekend, maybe pumpkin pie crusts left on our plates, and my dad reading my finished paper. While I’m sure it was nothing remarkable, he looked so proud. “This is it,” he said, smiling at me. “You got it.”
What I had in that Macbeth essay was surely no keen insight. It was probably nothing more than an earnest freshman’s ideas and speculation stitched into something like an argument. But I do believe that what my dad saw in the paper, or saw by watching me struggle so mightily writing it, was my love of and respect for writing come alive on the page. He could see that I could see now. That books can and do cast spells, and that understanding how those spells are conjured doesn’t take away their magic, it redoubles it. We read our favorite books, or passages or even sentences, and we read them again and they move us, they floor us, linger with us, they leave their mark, and we’re never the same after.