Fiction, Memory, Reading, Writing

Alone in our heads

In my earliest memory, I am lying on my stomach in the kitchen looking through the square holes in a grate. I am eighteen months old. My parents and I live in the upstairs apartment of an old house converted into a duplex. Our kitchen lies above the kitchen of the downstairs apartment. Our only heat source is radiant, meaning the heat from downstairs rises into our apartment through open grates in our floor. My mother warns me not to drop anything through the holes, but that was never my intention. The family who lives downstairs is eating dinner, their table is directly below the grate, and I am watching them and listening to their conversation. That’s the extent of that memory, but I now see it as an early indication of my interest in observing people, what they do, what they say, how they act and react.

Yesterday, I followed a link to a video interview with John Irving. In one segment1, he mentioned an early indication he knew he could be a writer: he desired and needed a lot of alone time. Aha!, I thought. Sometimes, when I look back on my childhood, it seems sort of like those Charlie Brown cartoons where adults are unseen and their voices are muted. I had parents, two sisters, and a fair amount of friends, but I preferred to spend a lot of time alone with my imagination.

At this point, I can’t say if that choice was strictly my nature or if it had been enhanced by circumstance. I was labeled early in my school career as one of the “smart kids.” That designation sets you apart in ways both good and bad. You may be given free time while other students work on a subject that you breezed through. You may also be assigned extra work. In both cases, you’re alone.

If you’re a writer, then you are a reader. And I presume, like me, as a child you gobbled up books like candy. I don’t know about you, but reading time was alone time for me. And then, inspired by what I read, I wanted to act out my own stories in the backyard with my baby dolls in my “covered wagon” or behind the living room sofa where I sat up an “apartment” for my Barbies. Alone. Whole conversations carried on in my head.

Of course, I played games with other children, but I preferred make believe to sports or most physical activity. I would try to act out some of my stories with friends, but it was frustrating for us all. I always wanted to be the star and director—“now you say this and then you do that and then I say …” It was just easier to play alone.

When I got a little older, the ultimate isolator struck—illness. I spent only nine months of my seventh, eighth, and ninth grades actually in school. The rest of that time I was either bedridden, in the hospital, or recovering from surgery. Except for three months with a visiting teacher, I taught myself and took tests by phone. Needless to say, I didn’t fare well in the social skills usually developed during this period of life. But I can remember only a few times feeling lonely. And never was I bored. I had my imagination.

In light of all this, do I mind that writing requires me to spend a lot of time alone? Of course not. I think I was destined for this life. Only now, I don’t lay on my stomach. I just close my eyes to watch and listen for the story to unfold.

1 The whole interview is here: http://bigthink.com/johnirving  If you want to hear just the portion I referenced, click the segment titled: How to Tell if You’re a Writer

(Previously published on this blog on 7 November 2009.)

Dream, Memory, Real Life, Words, Writing

Oh, let me swim in that river

When I was a wee thing, my Aunt Helen taught me to swim in Kinniconick Creek near my grandparents’ home in Lewis County, Kentucky. I didn’t like the feel of the occasional fish sucking at my toes, so she let me swim in my tennis shoes. Entering the cool green shade after the long, hot walk was like crossing over into a secret world. I remember the echoing click-clack of the dry stone under my feet, the careful negotiation over the slippery wet stone, the plip-plip-plip-plip-plop of a stone, flung by an older cousin, skipping over the water’s surface. Magical.

Unfortunately, the terror of a near-drowning experience a few years later in a public swimming pool in Indianapolis, Indiana ended my swimming days. However, I still dream that I can swim.

Each dream scenario is different, but the exhilaration I feel when I realize I’m swimming is always the same. I’m surprised to discover I’m swimming, but it’s obvious I can, so I do. With less effort than the action should warrant, I glide through the cool water. I feel no sense of the panic, the breathlessness, that accompanies my being in or even near deep water in real life.

That dream sensation is the same one I feel when my writing goes well. I swim effortlessly down that river of words. I’m joyfully swept away, the sun warming my head, the water cooling my body. At times, my strokes are powerful, carrying me a long distance in no time. Sometimes I tread water, gazing around, soaking up the view, listening, thinking until I’m ready to swim some more. When tired, I float, eyes closed, waiting for renewed strength, and then I flip over and set off again.

It’s been awhile, but I think I hear the splash and babble of water again. I feel the change in the air temperature. I’m so close I can feel the stones under my feet. How long, how deep is this river? I don’t know, but it’s time to dive in. See you at The End.

Family, Fiction, Imagination, Memory, Musings, Real Life, Tuesday Topic, Writing

Do you believe in make believe?

The Christmas Eve I was five, I woke my little sister, took her by the hand, and made her sit at the top of the stairs to watch our parents take our Christmas gifts out of the closet below the staircase. My objective? To prove to her that Santa wasn’t real. Why I don’t know. I don’t think I was a particularly mean sister. I can’t even remember how I knew Santa was make believe.

My  parents didn’t discover us peeking, and my sister didn’t rat me out, so I went along with the Santa story for years after that night. Why? Because I believe in make believe.

Science can’t explain everything. Religion tries. Children simply believe. As we get older, we lose some of that capacity for hope against all odds, the certainty that, if we wish hard enough, it will be so. Star light, star bright …

I reserve room in my imagination for the magic of fairies, and elves, and unicorns, of ghosts, and Nessie, and Bigfoot. As a fiction writer, I think that’s only fair. When I offer you my writing, I ask you to enter a world of imaginary people, in imaginary places, doing imaginary things. I ask you to believe in my make believe.

And I’ll do my best to write it well, so no big sister will whisper in your ear and destroy the illusion.


Endnote: If you read this post and took any comment as a slight to your religious beliefs, please know that I had no such intent.

Imagination, Memory, Real Life, Writing

No matter what your age, it’s back to school time!

Where I live, the school year has just started. My children are grown, so I’m a bit removed from that event nowadays, but still it stirs the memory pot. During my school days the year started after Labor Day, so the real memory kickoff will come a couple of weeks from now, on the first morning with just the right slant of light and crispness to the air. Soon after, the leaves will turn and begin to fall.

There’s nothing stronger than the scent of autumn leaves crushed underfoot to take me back to the Octobers of my youth. I’m instantly transported back, scuffing my shoes through the red, gold, and brown strewn across the sidewalks on my way home from school. It’s always a sunny afternoon and I take my time, as though I’m trying to hold on to every ray before the gray days of winter set in.

Scientists say scent is the strongest link to memory, and I believe it. With one whiff of a crayon box, I’m six-years-old again. I’m wielding a fat orange crayon and trying my best to stay insides the lines of the duck’s beak. It’s lunchtime, Friday, and with the odor of fish sandwiches drifting from the cafeteria, we line up, but first stop is the restroom, where I’m greeted with the combined smells of castile soap and wet brown paper towels. Ah, sweet memories.

I associate more than smells with school, of course. The faint peppermint taste of white paste, the murmur of students shuffling though polished hallways, and the tap, scratch, and squeak of chalk on the blackboard. Speaking of blackboards—the old-fashioned slate kind—does anyone else remember the man who came around to refresh the lines? Do you remember the paint smelling like bananas? I know. I’m old, but every year around this time, it’s easy to recall the child again.

Do you have a fond school memory to share?

Advice, Author, Books, Craft, Fiction, Imagination, Inspiration, Life, Memory, Novel, Short story, Tips, Writing

As the twig is bent? Does your writing reflect your inner child?

I’m reading Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, which is a collection of his essays. He mentions frequently the source of his story ideas, tracing them back to childhood loves and events. In that sense, he shows that he started writing his stories years, even decades, before he typed them out.

He writes:

“I was in love, then, with monsters and skeletons and circuses and carnivals and dinosaurs and, at last, the red planet, Mars.

From these primitive bricks I have built a life and a career. By my staying in love with all of these amazing things, all of the good things in my existence have come about.”

And in another essay:

“Do not, for money, turn away from all the stuff you have collected in a lifetime.

Do not, for the vanity of intellectual publications, turn away from what you are—the material within you which makes you individual, and therefore indispensable to others.

To feed your Muse, then, you should always have been hungry about life since you were a child.”

With that in mind, this past week, I’ve thought a good bit about my childhood interests—my “primitive bricks”. At first glance, I don’t see evidence that I fed my Muse the seeds that grew into Brevity. Maybe I just need to look deeper into my first loves. Or maybe that novel was an aberration. Maybe my next novel should be completely different.

What do you think about Bradbury’s thoughts on childhood loves being the true well from which you draw your story ideas?