The Wordsmith

Through struggles with identity, death, dyslexia, and homophobia, author Bridget Birdsall found a way to reclaim her self, her memory, and her life through the power of the written word.

I am an artist, writer, and published author. Since 1992 I’ve called Madison home. The firstborn of six children, I was raised in Milwaukee where my first two books are based.

Double Exposure is the story of an intersex teen athlete who overcomes bullying and learns to stand in her personal power. It’s won numerous awards. The paperback edition, along with an LGBTQ youth-focused educational supplement is scheduled for release this October. May it land in the hands of millions of middle and high school students, teachers, and librarians.

Ordinary Angels is part memoir, part novel. Originally, I wrote the book for the purpose of personal healing but because of a promise I made to my son—to publish a book by the time I turned 50—it became my first self-published novel. Ironically, after years of pursuing traditional publishing channels, it was a book I wasn’t sure I wanted out in the world that landed me a New York literary agent.

My books are for young people of all ages, including those that live within us, no matter how old we might be. I write fiction focused on the struggles of those whose stories need to be told, from those whose voices need to be heard.

Perhaps the most subversive and radical thing I’ve done in my life, besides coming out as a lesbian, has been to keep writing; despite dyslexic challenges, countless rejection slips and years of near-publishing misses, and the casual comments from straight-white-male editors that my books were not “commercial enough.” This literary label seemed to me to be a kind of code for books that contained gay characters or content; the kind of code words that closed doors.

Life changing words  

But then came Amazon and Harry Potter—the series that changed the face of publishing forever, not only for young readers but the entire world! All because, in the dust and rubble of corporate layoffs and publishing mergers, a gay editor believed, like I do, that books can change the world.

That is why I suit up, and show up, and write.

This is why, though I was a single parent with a 13-year-old, and though it would require taking out school loans which I’m still paying back, and though I wasn’t sure I was even a good enough writer, and though my spelling was still atrocious, I applied to Vermont College, for a low-residency writing program located in Montpelier where I earned my Masters of Fine Arts, while holding down a job and raising my son.

All because once, a long time ago, I read a book by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings called The Sojourner. The year was 1971, I was eleven years old and starting sixth grade in a new school in the suburbs. I’d picked that book up off my mother’s library pile, because I was in the practice of pretending to read and I was tired of being teased about the picture books my younger siblings had long since left behind.

Then, it happened. To this day I can’t explain it, but suddenly, the words started making sense. And the protagonist, a grown man from a different place and time seemed to whisper to me in some secret language that only my soul could know.

This book was not a child’s book, but my world was not a child’s world. And my mother, her Irish eyes, bloodshot, her belly ballooning with the last of six children, sipped her wine and succinctly stated, “That’s nice dear.”

Archie Comics, Shakespeare or the Bible, it made no difference to her—at least I was reading. No more endless evenings flashing cards in front of my face, turning b’s into d’s, or covering up the pictures to the storybooks I had memorized—verbatim.

Discovering a dream  

My mother had enough on her hands, and out of the bunch, I was the oldest, the dependable one, the one she could count on to help with the babies. As she saw it, life crushes us all soon enough, what could it hurt to let me dream?

Every girl needs a dream.

Especially a girl who struggles in school, a girl who can’t sit still, a girl who refuses to wear skirts, a girl who wants to run around shirtless with random packs of wild boys, a girl who races her bicycle off homemade jumps until it breaks in half, a girl who just doesn’t seem to know how to act like a girl. The kind of girl that a mother worries about, so…

So what if I wrote my letters backwards and upside down. So what!

I was reading. A trapdoor had sprung open in my brain and now, somehow, the words no longer tripped me up. No longer intimidated me. Words, I decided, were the key. I couldn’t always sound them out, but with contextual clues, I discovered an amazing secret. Not in the words themselves, but in the spaces between the words, around the words, within the words, into the world of knowing.

It was in this world of knowing that I began to write. Sporadically. Spasmodically. Illegibly. No one could read what teachers dubbed my “chicken scratch,” yet these efforts served me well for I became adept at plumbing the messages buried deep within the crusty shells of images and words.

Things I could comprehend but not explain: the wine stains, like blood, on mother’s closet floor; the frantic quivering of my brother’s chin when he’d wet the bed; the chalky soap scum on my sister’s lips after she called the lady who came to help around the house the n-word.

Wrestling with truth  

Then something strange began to happen. The more I wrote, the more I began to remember: my brother Michael laid out in a tiny coffin, wearing a powder blue suit with a rosary wrapped in his three-year-old fingers and the gash on his forehead so finely powdered a person would hardly notice it after the accident.

Michael is in heaven now. We must not talk about it. Accidents happen.

I was the oldest, the dependable one. The one they could count on. So like Michael’s body, I buried my memories, my questions, and my knowing. And it worked, slowly, gradually, I began to forget, until I forgot everything—even who I was.

I put down my books, my paper, my pen, and picked up a basketball. The single thing I had a talent for. In high school I made the varsity team and I clung to that ball like a drowning swimmer clings to a life vest; it alone would be my ticket out.

Out to a Jesuit University in Omaha, Nebraska on a four-year Division I basketball scholarship. Out into the post Title IX world of women’s sports. Out amidst a world of tumbleweeds and new ideas and an endless array of words. Including words whispered with disdain: gay, dyke, sinner.

Once again, I picked up my pen and began to write.

On the court and on the page I pounded out my pain. Yet, wherever I went, a thin black thread tugged at my soul, as if I’d forgotten something, something important, and I was forever searching for it in the next basket, in the next town, on the next page.

I received a bonus Phys Ed grade for playing basketball. My only “A.” At the end of the season someone outed my coach and she was fired. Rumors flew like torpedoes across campus and a few of my dorm mates simply disappeared, too.

“Lesbians.” My roommate, a fellow freshman basketball player, shrugged her shoulders. “The school has a responsibility to protect us from predatory lesbians.” I was in shock, and after a year of sleeping in dank hotel rooms across Iowa, Indiana, and South Dakota, then twisting my knee beyond repair, I quit.

In the company of books  

My father was furious. “If you want to stay at that fancy school, you pay for it!” he shouted through the phone.

So I did. I took out loans. I landed a job as a resident adviser and during those late night shifts, I wrote and wrote and wrote. By day, I took as many “ology”s as my schedule would allow: theology, sociology, psychology, and after I graduated with a degree in marketing (less math, more ology’s) I soared off to save the world.

Perhaps if I poured myself into helping other people I wouldn’t have time to worry about the feelings surfacing inside me.

In California’s San Joaquin Valley, known to the natives as the Grapes of Wrath County, I learned to make solar breadboxes and red-hot tamales and how to fend off the wild dogs that fed on the scraps of the poor. I learned that poverty had many faces, and that there were those who had little money and those who had little heart.

Most importantly, I learned to be alone.

On a mattress, on the floor, with the dry breath of night air and the smell of rotting muskmelons and the heat pressing down on me, I learned to silently sing myself to sleep with books—cheap, bent, paperbacks, and moldy Penguin classics. Whatever I could lay my hands on. Harper Lee. Pearl Buck. Flannery O’Connor. Kate Chopin.

I loved women writers.

Especially women of color, women who tackled tough issues head on, women who taught me what it meant to be a woman—beyond color, class, creed, or even sexual orientation. Maya Angelo. Alice Walker. Zora Neale Hurston.

Falling back  

Then came the call that mother had fallen ill from an allergic reaction to the gold salt injections used to treat her Rheumatoid Arthritis. A solution that washed through her veins with rivers of red wine and whatever blue or red or pink pills could be had at the time.

I was the oldest, the dependable one, the one they could count on. I flew home and cooked and cared for the youngest boys, 10 and 12. The ones that came after Michael died. At my father’s urging, I joined the family real estate business, and then I began to make money. More money than I knew what to do with.

Never mind dreams. Never mind the writing.

Like other women, I did what was expected of me, I met a man and married.

My mother was ecstatic. She insisted on a large Catholic wedding, and the night before I was to walk down the aisle I dreamed that I was trapped under the ice on the lake where I lived.

My friend tried to help me find a place to come up for air. My friend’s father, a member of the Moral Majority, had recently dumped every picture of her into a large black trash bag and thrown it out onto her sister’s front lawn.

The friend who’d introduced me to Ferron, Holly Near, and Chris Williamson. Who drank shots of double espresso and took me to my first gay bar in Portland, Oregon. My friend who patiently answered questions about her personal life, and who’d never been anything but loving and kind and incredibly generous.

If she was sinner, I should have realized that night, that I needed to get a different God. The next day, I cried all the way down the aisle, only I didn’t know why. Shouldn’t I be happy? I remember wanting to turn around and run, but there was an enormous church filled with 300 of my parents’ best friends, three priests on the altar, one who’d tutored me when I played basketball in college, all ready to seal the deal. Not even my friend could save me now.

And love, I secretly decided, could fix this. After all, love was the answer to every problem, wasn’t it? Determined to build the best life I could, I tried to be the wife I could be and before long I held in my arms the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on; a wrinkled, brown-skinned boy.

Falling apart to build something better  

But there was a problem—not with my baby, with me. Every time he cried, the blanched dead bones of my past grew flesh, gathered strength, and marched in my mind like a mad, thunderous army of truth.

Michael’s in heaven, we must not talk about it.

I could not eat. I could not sleep. I lost track of what was then and what was now and when I could no longer count the scoops to make my baby’s milk, when I lost even my words, I checked myself in.

“It helps some people to start at the beginning and write,” the young doctor said.

So I did. I wrote, and I cried, and I wrote. I wrote until my eyes swelled shut, until the sobs shook through my body and the pen slipped from my hand, until I fell into a deep sleep, and it wasn’t until I woke that I fully understood what my writing meant to me—that this irrepressible inner drive I had to understand my world, to delve deeply into the subtext of my life, to put thought forms out into the world was as vital to my essence as the air I breathe.

Writing saved my life. Without it, I doubt I would have survived to raise my son.

Writing gave me the first glimpse of a “God” I could understand.

Writing taught me that dyslexia was not a disability, but a gift, a leavening agent, like yeast, that would keep me humble enough to ask for help, willing enough to be persistent, and honest enough to accept who I really am.

Stories save lives  

When I write, I cease to be, and I tune into my muses, my angels, who see the world like a dyslexic, from the inside-out, with x-ray eyes that can pierce the walls of any person or character’s heart. No matter how hard or scarred it may be.

My muses are not burdened with burgeoning self-doubt and they define dyslexia as freedom, a way of seeing things differently and they whisper to me as the man in The Sojourner once did, in that secret language of the soul, ever-reminding me that I am not alone, nor have I ever been. There are people who think like me, feel like me, love like me, and the truth is gay or straight, black or white, Catholic or Jewish or Muslim or whatever, we are all more alike than we are different. Literature taught me this truth.

Only a week ago, the Assistant Surgeon General’s office released a report on the health and well being of lesbian, gay, and bisexual high school students. Unfortunately the “T” was left out. The data supports the cold, hard truth that most of us already know: Teens who do not identify as heterosexual are at a far greater risk for isolation, depression, drug use, bullying, and suicide.

The suicide statistics for LGBTQ youth are staggering, and Double Exposure is dedicated to those we’ve lost to suicide, including my nephew, Jeffrey Fehr. And this is why we need to support LGBTQ writers. This is why we must read books, and pass them on, and write our own stories, and keep finding ways to fight the subtle forms of censorship that want to silence our voices.

Because we matter, our stories matter, our words matter, and books can transform, heal, and save lives! n

Bridget lives with her amazingly talented partner and creative cohort Roseann Sheridan, and their dog Sophie. To sustain her writing, she recently joined the Sprinkman Real Estate group, and will be offering
a free poem for every home! Learn more at bridgetbirdsall.com.