“Writing has….been to me like a bath from which I have risen feeling cleaner, healthier, and freer.” – Henrik Ibsen, ‘Speeches and New Letters’
“At the age of 14 I discovered writing as an escape from a world of reality in which I felt acutely uncomfortable.” – Tennessee Williams, Forward to ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’
As a writer & publisher, it gives me a rare immense pleasure to introduce you to the work of Carly Sawatzki, a 15-year old Sophomore at the Saginaw Arts & Sciences Academy, recently honored by with an award from the Michigan Youth Arts Festival and recognized by the Saginaw Public School District’s Accent on Achievement program.
Despite the recent accolades, recognition for her work is amazingly nothing new for Carly, whom in the 5th Grade won the Sylvan county-wide essay contest for a piece she wrote about the Clothes For Katrina Kids endeavor; and that same year her piece Carly’s Story wont the Michigan Broadcasters Association award.
When I was first introduced to her work, Carly’s gifts for honesty, phrasing, poignancy, and ability to utilize the colorful textures & depths of the English vocabulary the way a gifted visual artist would carefully blend paints from their palate to create a lasting impression were obvious; but what engaged her talents even more to me was the realization upon meeting her that Carly indeed, has youth & time on her side – grappling with self-doubts as most teenagers do at some stage in their life, yet working through them in a manner that brings both validation to her life and transcendence in her art.
As with most writers, Carly’s journey began writing journals and poetry. “I used to write bits & pieces of things coming into my mind and put them together in an effort to try and make sense of my thoughts. Sometimes it didn’t work out. It’s a spiritual thing. They are pieces of me that I try to put together and make something that’s kind of beautiful.”
Of course, behind the eyes of every gifted child resides a conscientious parent, and for Carly it was her mother, Kim Sawatzki, an instructor at Saginaw Valley State University, who ushered her attention into the miracles to be unveiled upon the printed page.
“My Mom was always a writer” explains Carly, “and had these Tupperware bins down in the basement that were full of books, which I used to steal. One day I grabbed a copy of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and read it cover-to-cover. Although I didn’t quite understand it being a 3rd Grader at the time, Dickens became my favorite writer.”
“As soon as I could hold a pencil I was writing,” reflects Carly. “As much as a kid with countless ideas and a minuscule vocabulary can. I guess I didn’t write effectively until 2nd grade. My teacher, Alma Cooke, would have us enter poetry into the River Junction Poet’s Society annual contest. She was my muse. She believed in me, which helped me to believe in myself. It’s one of the greatest feelings, having someone who really wants you to excel, who sees talent in you and pushes you to pursue that. I placed twice that year.”
Ironically, it was in Cook’s class that Carly had points taken away when she was caught studying a math book in English class one day. But then the points were re-instated when Cook discovered her reading Dickens at the tender age of eight (an ancillary anecdote that has a rather Dickensian charm in itself).
It’s rather disconcerting to ask a 15-year old when she first started writing seriously, but in Carly’s case she points to the 7th grade. “I went into the Language Arts concentration at the Saginaw Arts & Science Academy (SASA) and wanted to excel. I wanted to be a really good writer and have people read my work.”
“I didn’t start writing seriously until last year. My Language Arts Concentration teacher at SASA, Jared Morninstar, was one of those teachers who really encouraged me and helped me review my pieces and make changes. He really opened the door for me by exposing me to a variety of literary styles. I found my niche somewhere between a notebook and a bookshelf.”
“Mostly I concentrated on Poetry until one of my poems was accepted at the Michigan Arts Festival,” she relates. “I was part of a prose writing workshop there and discovered that while poetry is more free form, prose is more like telling a story, so I ended up writing this really big piece about my sister, who is now in the Marines. It was all about how I felt the day she left for boot camp.”
Apart from Dickens, Carly sites her key literary influences as poets like Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson and Sylvia Plath, although she also is deeply engaged with The Pillars of the Earth by novelist Ken Follett. But she also gives pivotal props to Mom. “She wrote poetry as well and when I read it our styles are very different, although we both write about life experiences that we’ve had. I like Plath because she’s dark and her metaphors and similes are so strong. She really pulls you into the writing emotionally.”
So where does Carly see writing and her future engaging with it fitting into the so-called ‘New Media’ of online blogging and Facebook addiction? “Writing is going to be a big part of my life no matter what I do,” reflects Carly. “Writing is a very concrete thing and wherever you go in life, you have to write. There’s all this talk about trying to eliminate books through Kindle, but I like the smell and feel of books and the sound of the pages turning. That’s something a Kindle cannot provide.”
What about other kids and cohorts from her generation? The media bullhorn always shouts these days about how kids don’t read and have lost interest in the literary arts; but is this true?
“I don’t think writing is a dying art,” states Carly. “Publication is always going to be extremely important because it’s connecting people, which is one of the most important things you can do. I feel kids do read, but probably not what they should be reading. They’ll sit and read four hours a day on Facebook, but they’re not picking up dusty volumes of books or going to the library. I wish it were the opposite.”
“If youth is a fundamental stage of incubation where doubts & fears start to manifest on a grander scale, then Carly is typical of many teenagers (and adults, for that matter) when asked what she feels the most challenging thing is about writing.
“For me it’s this worry my work won’t be accepted by others. The validation. Writing isn’t like math, it’s subjective and there is no right and wrong, it just is. For me writing is a very personal thing. It’s like a gateway to my mind. This is my way of learning about myself, so in the end, it’s about pleasing myself. I’m my worst critic, I didn’t really like the pieces that I got awards for, because I didn’t think they were my best.”
“A lot of times I’m inspired by abstract things that I like to expand upon,” reflects Carly when asked to describe her writing style. “Mainly the problem for me is carrying a metaphor. I’ll try and change it and experiment with words and it can be frustrating. Once I have a piece I think is okay I’ll let it go for awhile and put it away and look back at it later with a fresh perspective.”
“When you’re writing about emotions you’re pretty adamant about what you write, but since emotions are short-lived, after awhile you look back at the piece and glean a fresh perspective on it. That’s when you can really change it for the better.”
“Words and writing is like cookie dough. You need to work it just right. If it’s not ready yet, you don’t stick it in the oven. To me revision is like scraping nails across a chalkboard, but it always turns out well. There’s always a positive outcome after I revise a piece. Besides, it’s not permanent. That’s the great thing about writing. You can always change it right back to what you originally wrote.”
Though only a sophomore at SASA, Carly also expresses an interest in journalism. “I’m extremely interested in politics and human issues that affect people on a global scale,” she explains. “The AIDS epidemic and birth control are two big issues for me, but they are very personal because you have to think not in terms of dry laws, but the people affected. I like to listen to people talk about things that affect them.”
“I definitely feel you always have to be truthful in your writing,” concludes Carly. “I don’t believe in compromising. If a writer is not really expressing their true thoughts in their writing, it’s evident, because as a reader you can tell.”
“If a writer is being honest and engaging, people will read it.”
(written as inspiration for SASA's gala.)
A chameleon of the highest order
draped in silk, adorned with pearls
Her impeccably painted expression has yet to betray her
to those whose laughter
rises to a crescendo
tinkling in time to crystal flutes
amidst dinner sanctioned conversation
as bubbly as the champagne she swirls
in long stemmed Waterford.
She exacts her life by a blueprint
which has yet to exist-
meticulously crafting an exterior around
her barren interior landscape
her well crafted persona
a ticket redeemable
for the feeling of acceptance.
Illuminated by sun that paints her face in warmth,
she's weaving daisy chain tales of tomorrows
yesterday's illusions melt away
with the asphalt miles.
The roar of a v-twin engine
drowns out the allegations of inadequacy.
She is flying free
mirroring the eagle emblazoned on the tank
Soaring toward the horizon
attempting to escape the gravity of reality.
Her fortress forged of chapters
Adventures in black and white
she finds solitude in well worn sweat pants
as she twirls a lock of hair around her finger
while studying the lives of fictional characters,
who seem more real than she
Voraciously devouring the words she will someday become
while searching for pieces to the blueprint
of her interior landscape.
I remember when this street was still fat
with the laughter of children,
when the steady ding-dong of the
church bells in the distance
didn't sound so ominous
nor echo as loudly.
When the leaves that paved the streets in fall
were tamped down
by tennis shoes and bike tires.
When doorbells rang excitedly with
promises of play-
everyone knew where the treasure was hidden
and there was a black market
in sidewalk chalk and bubbles.
Now there is only the steady peal of the church bell
and the staccato barking of dogs
whose messages are lost in the howling wind
and me, all alone in the rain.
Your words sang to me, divine poetry
dew-drop notes on a staff
streamed from betwixt parted pink lips
and I was hiding
tucked peacefully in the silences linking your sentences.
Your simple presence, like finding shiny silver dimes
between worn leather sofa cushions
a modest victory
a shimmering treasure to savor
for a very long while.
It felt like childhood, summer
frayed knees, missing buttons,
a floppy, jingling strap clinking as I run-
dangling and snagging on rogue branches and thorns.
composes a whispered dialogue
imperative pieces scarcely audible
above the earsplitting interjections of those
who still, predictably, know it all.
Those papers were like threats,
Piled on the smooth polished blonde table.
They looked ominous,
official, with their bold black words that dictated
the do's and don'ts of boot camp.
Like what color underwear and socks you were allowed to wear.
I glanced uneasily down at my feet
Where purple monkeys smiled mischievously,
They weren't allowed to be.
I was pretty sure they'd left room for socks
With naughty, violet monkeys on the don't side of the list.
She'd be leaving tomorrow and I was watching her pack.
It tied tiny knots all over me –
In my throat and in my stomach.
It felt as if there was a pendulum from a grandfather clock
Hanging from my heart
Counting its beats
And the seconds
Until tires would no longer scruff the runway in Detroit.
She sealed the suitcase and I felt my fate slip in
Before those tiny teeth clenched with an ominous snap.
The rest of the world melted away and sat
Like a rippling puddle in the palm of my hand
In that second
Everything I had ever known was lost –
Reality became a rock in my shoe
That I had no choice but to allow to burden my step.
I delivered that last blue suitcase to an open door,
The sound of the wheels flowing closely behind,
Chanting clickety clack
And mocking me.
I never knew her light voice
Could weigh so much
But her goodbye piggybacked upon my shoulders
Like a backpack full of bricks.
We drove her to the recruiting station behind Applebee's
Where the scent of fryer grease surrounded us like mist in a swamp.
I waited in the lobby
Looking tiny and misplaced among burly men in uniform
Laced with the smell of leather boots.
We had to leave here there.
Leave her to be bright, blonde and sunny
Among beige walls, beige desks and beige people.
16th November, 2023