by Anna Brooks
In the first grade, I carried history books around like spell books. There was this magic about language that I felt compelled to keep close, like it had secret powers that I didn’t have access to yet. Clinging to an impressive-looking pile of books every day at school was also how I prevented my classmates from realizing I couldn’t read.
Listen to the album while reading the text.
I was walking to the bus after school when I had my first panic attack. One minute I was comfortably fastened to my little stack of hardbacks; the next I felt like I was being seared alive by a spotlight. I was certain in that moment that every other kid could see me for what I was: they knew my books were a lie; they knew I was dyslexic; they knew I had ADHD. I clung to my covers for a spine, but they couldn’t protect me this time. With my gaze glued to the sidewalk, I ran to the bus and curled up onto the sticky spring-vinyl seat, pressing my forehead against the window.
I felt more alone than my six-year-old vocabulary could articulate, so I started to whisper out the beginnings of a song. I remember the fog of it on the window. It lifted me up. Every day afterward I ran back to that window to add a few new words. Day after day the little cloud grew with my spirits. And just like that, I had a passion that would follow me for the rest of my life.
A New Dilemma
Second grade brought with it a handful of new songs, and a new dilemma: if I wanted to keep the music that kept me happy, I was going to have to learn to read and write. Easier said than done. Dyslexia put a funhouse mirror on every moving letter I attempted to read. During that phase of not-quite-literacy, my spell books became a constant reminder that I would never be as proficient as my classmates. I wasn’t entirely wrong.
But one day, something didn’t make sense: I didn’t understand why writing on a page was so much more tedious than writing out loud. The inconsistency made me realize that language probably wasn’t strictly about the skills my brain had trouble with, or even what my teachers taught that it was: spelling, speed-reading, and handwriting. Writing is a creative tool with the power to get an idea from one head to another. That set me on fire.
I started writing like it was a drug. It stopped mattering what my classmates thought: that my progress was slow, or that my teacher put me in time out for being a “dumb ditto.” I lived in writing, and nobody was going to tell me I didn’t belong there. I ran home from school to fill printer pages with gargantuan nonsense words. I snuck onto my mom’s computer and spent hours keying handfuls of phrases. I actually practiced spelling on the back of my dunce cap. Literacy wasn’t homework to me; it was a profound and empowering magic.
In the years that followed, my spell books were swapped for composition notebooks. I filled journals with the worst songs you’ve ever heard. I borrowed, stole, transcribed, and altered. I read poetry and listened microscopically to my favorite artists, scouring their lyrics to figure out why I was so enchanted by “Behind These Hazel Eyes” by Kelly Clarkston or why “Hurt” by Christina Aguilera moved me to tears after the 100th listen.
At age eleven, after years of those secretly dreadful songs, they started to sound like this:
Baby can you see me here,
stand to see me persevere,
know I’m not overcome with fear
when I look in your eyes.
After a few more years, I started thinking about meter.
I’ll admit that ignorance
is almost always bliss,
for saying that you’re smart,
sometimes you’re so oblivious.
In early high school, I started to play with the literal and metaphorical meanings of words:
I’ll steal from them their gravity
and hope that they can pin me down.
When I wrote my first album at 17, Pitch Black Noise, I started to breathe and feel through the technical skills I’d accumulated.
I sit warmed inside a fortress
beaten sticks and willow stones.
Buried deep in sheets and blankets
Blindness shielding healing bones.
Pitch Black Noise means fumbling around in the dark; it means feeling alone and directionless and incapable. Disabilities can make noise. Depression makes noise. Bullying and anxiety make noise. But every beautiful thing we ever hear is noise that someone has taken great care to sculpt.
I want to believe it’s human nature to take a hard look at the garbage we’re trudging through and try to make something out of it that puts joy into the world. My song “Stitches” is about trauma. “Fatuous Love” is about emotional abandonment. “Messenger” was written during a panic attack. Writing lyrics dithers the noise in my life; it shapes it into something tolerable, and I genuinely hope it does the same for my audience.
Spending Time With an Old Friend
Songwriting for me at twenty-two feels like spending time with an old friend, or a benevolent ghost who cares little for your time or whether you have a proper writing surface handy. I am never happier than when the ghost comes to say hello to me, and after seventeen years of writing love songs to people who have made me happy, she needed one written for her too.
She is sound and she bolts
like her soles were both gold-tipped
To steal light that frightens us
both to blot out.
…It is darker
when she’s not around.
Anna Brooks, Category: Artist, Albums: Pitch Black Noise, Singles: If Loving You Is All I Have To Do, Going My Way, Top Tracks: If Loving You Is All I Have To Do, Sane or Alive, Stitches, No Other Misery, Lucy, Monthly Listeners: 13, Where People Listen: Milan, Mugla, Antioch, Scotch Plains, Charlotte