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Under your spell(ing)

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FEBRUARY 08, 2018

In the second grade, I misspelled “queen.” In big, careful lines, I drew out the letters “q-w-e-e-n,” and in a sloping semi-cursive, Ms. Carter drew a red felt-tip “u” over the “w” and then a spiraling rose reaching down the left margin over the supersized aqua lines. At the top of the page, she told me I’d gotten a 100 percent. “But don’t forget qu,” she’d written — I was far too distracted by the rose to be bothered with the word “queen.”

When I got in the car after school, I asked my mom to teach me how to draw a rose like Ms. Carter’s.

“She draws it without picking her pen up once,” I said. “What if she messes up?”

“There are no mistakes in art,” my mom told me. “Art is all about being creative, and Ms. Carter is an artist.”

I decided I wanted to be creative, so I should be an artist too. Writers didn’t seem nearly as creative as artists.

In the fifth grade, Ms. Pinder told our social studies class we were going to do a project on the states — “Everyone has to pick a different state and make a brochure about it,” she said with disinterest. I opened the Pages application on the 2006 Macbook I shared with my little brother and spent most of the week looking for pictures of a rose garden that would complement the picture of a waterfall I’d pasted on page two. When Ms. Pinder wandered around the classroom on the last day of the project, she stopped behind me, stooping to look over my shoulder.

“ ‘Connecticut’ has three c’s in it, love,” she said flatly as she peered through her purple spectacles.

I looked at the word “Conneticut,” typed out in 18-point Papyrus, startled, my cheeks pinkening for a moment. I slipped a “c” between the “e” and the “t” and opened up a new tab to search for pictures of ferns — I’d read there were lots of ferns in Connecticut.

After I looked at ferns, I looked at pictures of deserts and oceans and sand dunes and cities.

“I want to take pictures that go in real brochures,” I told my mom after school. “Sophia has a fancy pink camera, and she takes really good pictures when her family goes on vacation.”

Writing about places didn’t seem nearly as special as taking pictures of them — “A picture is worth a thousand words,” Ms. Pinder had told us.

In my senior year of high school, I wrote an essay about “The Invisible Man,” scratched out messily with a ballpoint pen from the cheap Monterey motel my family stays in every year on Thanksgiving. I only had 50 minutes to concretize themes of race relations and individuality, so, as the muscles in my fingers ached, I wrote carelessly.

The paper came back to me, folded in half to hide an A, circled below the staple in the upper corner of the college-ruled diatribe I had written. I flipped through it quickly, finding a few notes in the margins: “Ras the Exorter” circled adjacent to the word “Exhorter”; “ingraciating” crossed out and replaced by “ingratiating”; “normalicy” next to the comment, “This is not a word — normalcy or normality.” But Mr. Barker had beamed as he handed me my A; I could still be a good writer if I misspelled a few things.

I had put my little black Casio with the retractable lens in a box in a drawer in a shelf in my room, and the colored pencils I had used in primary school were nubs crammed in a box in a cupboard in our living room. I loved to write, and I wanted to be a writer.

As a former-artist-turned-writer, I decided writing was also about creativity, not about getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty details. If writing was its own kind of art, how could there be mistakes?

In October, as a second-year college student, I wandered through the aisle of sauces in the Trader Joe’s on University Avenue, a plastic basket dangling clunkily from my fingertips. As I reached for a package of spaghetti, my girlfriend pulled a jar of arrabbiata sauce from the shelf and looked at the rustic font scrawled across the label.

“I read an article last week where the writer spelled this wrong,” she said, angling the jar toward me. “I’m pretty sure it was you.”

I laughed, flustered. Of course the girl I loved was a copy editor.

Contact Olivia Jerram at [email protected].

FEBRUARY 08, 2018