Think of your favorite book. No, better yet, go and get your favorite book, feel its heft in your hand, flip through its pages, smell its bookness. Read a passage or two to send that stream of sparks through your head, the alchemy that occurs when the written word collides with the chemicals of your consciousness: Delight is the fruit of that collision.
When I was seven or eight years old, I’d walk to the nearby public library, and go into the section on dinosaurs. I would lie in the aisle for hours, surrounded by scattered stacks of books, driving through a landscape of imagination, fueled by words. At first, I was simply thrilled by the stories of the great beasts, but after a time, I began to realize that I was taken by the words themselves—Jurassic, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus—and would say them softly aloud.
Many, many books later, it began to dawn on me that books were the conscious, choice-making work of authors. I started to fathom that a writer employed tools, framed a composition, shaped its architecture. Deeper yet, that writing had a voice, that it was animated by a current.
When I was twelve years old, I was swimming in the ocean and was tugged out by a small rip current that took me, amidst slamming waves, against the supports of a public pier. I screamed for help at the people looking down at me; no one seemed to react. I was terrified that I would die, while enraged that no one cared. In my agitation, I didn’t know that someone had called a lifeguard, who quickly rescued me.
A Pin That Poked Deeply
Months later, for a class assignment, I wrote an essay in which I described in detail my fear, fury and despair. My teacher later read the story aloud, saying it was a vivid slice of life. At the end of the year, the school handed out student awards, and I was given a little cloisonné pin that said “Best Writer.” I knew before then that writing had an unusual power over me, but the commendation told me that language, even my language, could hold sway over others as well.
I read broadly, though wrote only sporadically.
When I was fifteen, my parents granted me the indulgence of letting a friend paint, in a nice cursive script, the final page of Hesse’s Siddhartha on the wall, floor to ceiling, facing my bed. I thought that constantly reading those mindful words would prompt some spiritual renaissance. My other teenage absorptions checked that vow, but my interest in the power of words increased all the more.
Hesse said in an essay: “…I want to dream myself into priests and wanderers, female cooks and murderers, children and animals, and, more than anything else, birds and trees…” To me, he’s talking about the force of imagination, the authority of an authentic voice.
More and more, I came to see that the world of imagination is the biggest world there is, and that a writer can write to see the unexpected, to know the hidden, to do as Asimov suggested and “think through his fingers.” And that words can be so sensual you want to lick them.
Once Upon A Time…
I saw evidence everywhere that people were storytellers. They have been storytellers for ages, whether the words were inscribed on resistant stone, delivered in a lilting voice or caught in an electronic dance. I knew I wanted to be a storyteller too. However, I was still striking the anvil of ideas with brute blows, yet to learn the deft stitchings and tight knots in narrative’s fabric. But I wasn’t discouraged enough not to write. I tried poems, short stories, personal essays….
Twenty years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle accepted my article on my 15-year correspondence with the Jack Daniel’s Distillery, publishing it in the beloved Sunday Punch section. I bought 10 copies, and sat on a bench in Golden Gate Park just staring at my byline, not even reading the article. Still not literature, not the stuff of Lear’s stormy fulminations, of Conrad’s lurid Congo, of Twain’s beckoning twang, but for me, word magic.
I finally realized that I couldn’t wait for inspiration, a muse whose answering machine is all I got when I called. So, since then, a handful of published stories, a basketful of essays and articles, a finished novel that sleeps soundly, another in s-l-o-w progress.
I write because language is a bright bird, uncatchable, but worth every attempt.
[Note: the first paragraph of this piece is swiped from an essay I published a while back, and the rest is from an essay that won second place in an online contest (and destined to be published as one of an ebook collection), but the site was swallowed by evildoers. I wanted to give it some air…]