by Nicole Tanquary
At two years old, I already hated language. Individual words – mommy, daddy, dog, cat, fish – were fine. But putting those words together to make new meanings, meanings that had endless, complex subtleties? It was absolute madness. Worse, it was a madness that everyone, everyone except for me, seemed to understand.
I was two years old when my parents discovered my language-cognitive disability, wherein auditory words would get “scrambled” in my head. When I spoke, the words in my sentences were out of order; when I tried to listen to someone speaking, their words seemed out of order, and in that scrambling, the meaning of the message was lost. I would look at them, confused, trying to string the words together to make some kind of meaning, squirming when I got the inevitable look of, Can’t you understand me? What are you, stupid? And so, I hated language, particularly loathing the painful social interactions that came with it.
Then, when I was three, I discovered the magic of scribing that language onto paper. Here were sentences that sat solid and firm in front of me. I could go back and read through a sentence several times over, as many times as I wanted, until I understood its intent. Best of all, no one would frown at me impatiently as I struggled to comprehend.
The stories offered via written language were the lifeblood that sustained me through childhood. I read voraciously and began crafting my own writing as soon as I had mastered the mechanics of a computer keyboard. I wrote my first story at age six, began my first novel at age nine, sold my first fiction piece at age thirteen, and I still could not get enough. Writing was my mental escape, a creation of a space in which I could build new worlds for myself. In writing, I could erase my mistakes and create something new in their place. In contrast, when I spoke aloud with people–even after I could (mostly) understand what was being said, and my therapists declared me “cured”–one wrong word could slip out and shatter everything, and there would be no way to take it back.
So instead, I pulled away and wrote. I wrote through my depression and anxiety disorders, undiagnosed until later during high school. I wrote through the ostracization I felt. I wrote through my parents’ divorce. I wrote through my sister’s mental health struggles. I wrote and wrote, and when I got to college, I continued to write.
But somewhere along the way–somewhere amid these isolated writings–my attitude towards language and its usage began to shift. The subtleties behind social interactions became intriguing rather than frightening; how could I depict my characters well, if I didn’t understand their social reality? I started a journal, recording moments I witnessed and theorizing about their implications. The idea that “stories” existed beyond the printed form began to bleed into my consciousness. In a way, weren’t we all writing ourselves into existence whenever we presented certain versions of ourselves to the world? And didn’t “stories” appear around us in the cultural and societal narratives we chose to follow? For the first time in my life, I found myself using written language to understand other humans rather than distance myself from them.
Over the past few years, I’ve used my studies in discourse and rhetoric to solidify my conception of the not-so-solid communication networks in our society, particularly, in how people create identities based on their beliefs and ideologies. I have a long way to go in terms of perfecting that understanding, but looking back, it’s easy to see how far I’ve come: I began life leery of people and the language they used. I became a solitary writer, locked inside fictional worlds of my own making. Now, after much hardship and personal growth, I know how to travel freely between these worlds and “real” life, writing papers on social movements, ideologies, and public confrontations between politicians, alongside the short fiction that I still pursue in my spare time. Writing was the mechanism by which I first isolated myself from the world. It became the path how I ultimately reconnected with it.
Nicole Tanquary recently graduated summa cum laude from Hobart and William Smith Colleges with a degree in Writing and Rhetoric and three accompanying minors in Geoscience, Studio Art, and an in-house writer’s mentorship program called the Writing Colleagues Program. She currently lives and works in her hometown of Syracuse, New York, and will complete her Master’s degree in Communication and Rhetorical Studies in Fall 2018 at Syracuse University. This is her second piece published by Queen City Writers.