Word Magic: Why I Write

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…]

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8 thoughts on “Word Magic: Why I Write

  1. Tom, for many months now you’re inspired me to write, which in turn helps me to communicate better in all ways.

    Yet thank you for this essay, which brings all your episodes of inspiration into one cozy place; it’s a sort of Bentley philosophy of why we should write and hints at what we might achieve if we dare to. (So many seem too afraid, and so many others only know the using of written words as swords; such a shame.)

    Oh, and Aloysious says “hi”; when I left him he was putting a fresh coat of paint on the drawing room wainscoting….

  2. Rick, though I think the “Bentley philosophy” is a mishmash of old vegetables, I do appreciate your appreciation. Writing does fulfill a need in me that is met by no other pursuit. But man, there’s so far to go…

  3. “so far to go”

    Isn’t it about the journey?

    I can’t even conceive of a time when a writer would say “I’ve nowhere left to go; I’ve arrived. Ta daaa!” or anything like it.

    ‘twould be marvelous, though, if appreciation paid the rent. I must ponder that.

    I love walls covered with words. I just stayed in a home where the largest piece of art, about six feet square, had a figure of a man about a foot tall, semi-transparent, and the rest was covered with sentences, fragments, poetry, in different hands and voices. It was marvelous visually, even without reading it.

  4. It IS about the journey, Joel. Sometimes, though, when the trek has you mired in six inches of muck, and you’re bootless, you might choose to sell vacuums door-to-door instead. I have my bouts of doubt, but I counter them as best I can.

    I do love your description of the word wall.

  5. Uh, this isn’t really the venue, but Joel brought it up, it’s HIS fault! grins.

    Gack has a thing for wainscoting because, in his very formative years, he and his younger sister snuck into a dusty, unused, wainscotted room in the family manse and drew and wrote all over one of the panels with wax pencils (today called “crayons”).

    When their victory-garden-inventing creative mother caught them in the act, they expected punishment- but she paused, then joined right in and created art and stories with them, right alongside. All over the wainscoting. Dad and others joined in too. A party was thrown. Magic was created. People connected. All quite spontaneous.

    Thus, the genesis of Gack’s Visceral, non-interchangeable philosophy of business and indeed of life.

    Shhhh! Don’t tell. And sorry to go off on a tangent, but Joel mentioned those walls! AND- I’m pretty sure we all have such a memory, if we are creative people. Being encouraged, not stomped on, at an early age.

    I know I do.

  6. I love this post.

    Like you I’ve always been fascinated wth words and the magic we can experience through them. For me they are the first and last mystery in this universe.

    It’s nice to catch up on my blog reading. I’ve been without internet at home for ages so now that it’s finally installed I’m having fun.


  7. Rick, having a group spontaneously create art and stories is a fine thing (though if you bring your wax pencils into my neighborhood, we’ll be creating those stories on the driveway, not in my living room.

    Jai, thank you for the kind comment. Indeed words and their magic ARE a mystery; they can have such power over us. And when we think we know them a little, we still can wield them so clumsily. I’m still working on that one…

    Uh-oh—now that you’re back on the Net, you’ll forget to nap!

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