Another section of "He Who Vanquishes Warm Fuzzies and Cold Pricklies Sires Legend in the Writing Patch of Great Sincerity." Which itself is a portion of a book called Saving Angles: Finding Meaning and Direction in Life's Unlikely Corners.
II. “I want to hear…the scream...of the butterfly”; No—I think I’ll just watch him instead.
I’d make the short walk to the bus stop, and already I was locked in.
The rerun of the Adam West Batman program on the television over a breakfast bowl of Cream of Wheat and bananas had served as mere pretense. The Riddler could have made off with Gotham City and cut the Boy Wonder’s head in half with a band saw—POW, KERPLUNK, SPLAT—and I scarcely would have noticed.
It felt like I was in flux, that I was not fully assembled, and it would feel this way almost forty years later, until I had my story in my head. This did not mean that I knew exactly what was going to happen in said story. But there was a down-in-the-marrow-of bones certainty of “Yes, I got you now,” that I had to have.
It was akin to being Sherlock Holmes, who would always tell Watson, or his brother Mycroft, not that he had cracked a case, but that he had solved it. I was learning that I was to solve a story, because the case—an infinite number of cases—would always be there, I would never run out of narratives I could invent, that would come to me, that I would, in a sense, meet. Talent will tell you that the story is in there, genius will make you feel, in the full range of your being, what is in there before you have revealed it. It’s in the block of marble, it’s in the white canvas, it is in that patch of dark night. You chip it out, you find the sightlines, you turn on the light.
Sometimes that meant I had eighty-five percent of the story worked out, other times hardly any of it at all, but I knew the characters so well that I knew they wanted me to formally sit with them a bit and then they’d advise me how to go. Reach me, I would think, I am here. Reach us, they would relay, we are here, too.
There were all kinds of ways to get the “I got you now” moment. It wasn’t a grabby getting. Not like noodling for catfish under mangrove roots. There was appeasement and synchronicity in this coming together, two sides searching for each other who belonged on the same side, and it was my responsibility to facilitate our accordance, our sit-down, our fusion. Our partnership. They were bringing the story. I simply chaired the meeting and provided us a hall in which to gather.
That hall was, I first thought, my mind. But the mind had an annex, and that annex was my heart, where my core humanity resided. That neighbor became part of this growing community that could welcome an infinite number of new guests, new members. As I came to learn, as I was starting to learn in a third grade classroom in ways I could never articulate at the time, the hall and the annex were housed in something larger, and when that something larger was busy in the creation of art—not that these little stories were art, of course, but they were first steps forward—that same larger something, which was my soul, had no limits, it was both of me and it went beyond me. It was uniquely mine, and yet it could belong to the world. And that—though, again, I did not fully grasp this at the time, I merely felt it as sensation of surety—is what the soul of the true artist truly is.
Naturally, on the bus, I would have to take my part in determining what would be happening after school. Sometimes I had a fist-fight scheduled with an erstwhile rival, erstwhile friend, or we would squabble over where the latest football game was to be played—“your yard has too many acorns,” being a typical demerit—and whose Nerf ball we would use (a matter of whose had rotted the least), but then I shut my mouth and thought and thought hard.
I didn’t tell anyone about this. I didn’t tell my mother, a big reader, who always encouraged me. Not because I was trying to be secretive. This was just my thing, and I knew I was in a germinal period where it was imperative that I figure out how my process might unfold, even if I was to vary that process later and be open to other processes entirely.
There were days I stayed in for recess because I wished to do another story, or a second part to the first one. I’d sit at my desk at the back, Ms. Ferris would be at hers, at the head of the classroom, grading papers. Sometimes she was on duty for recess, which meant she’d leave me in the classroom by myself, and what peace I felt there.
The room was full of me people, their shades. But they weren’t ghosts. You couldn’t see them, though they were alive, they were there, but you still had the room to yourself. Many of them were not like me. My protagonists had interests and tastes and values, too, that I often did not, but I was not their mouthpiece, nor they mine. They had a right to their own lives. I was showing their lives.
I know it’s not truly how it was—well, maybe not—but the world felt quieter back then. You noticed the sound of the breeze more. The world had a presence that it’s too easy for us to lose now. The world—by which I mean the world around you, how it felt, looked, the color of the day, the smell of the cut grass, the yelp of the sibling, the intro music of the favorite TV program, the nodding head of a teacher, the texture of the library book with those foxing spots of brown—seemed to be more a central character in your personal drama, everyone’s given drama, and thus the shared, communal drama, rather than an asterisks, that thing that passed you by, as John Lennon said, as you made other plans, or an offstage character we are told about whom we never lay eyes upon. One realizes that Beckett could have called his play Waiting for Life and no meaning would have been lost.
Was this just because there were no cell phones, no social media? I don’t buy for a moment that we’re so busy now and caught up in lives of greater activity that we don’t and can’t notice such things. Step on a dating app, and if you needed more proof that most people spend huge chunks of their lives binging programs they don’t particularly care about—any one could be any other—you’ll find the proof-larder full-up for the rest of your life.
The world, though, no matter the pain and loneliness I have known in these intervening years, has always looked the same to me, as it especially began to look that autumn.
I became conscious of time in a new way. My best friend lived across the street and he was named Andy Smith. We were both big baseball fans, but he hated to go outside, which seemed odd, given that he was sporty and good at baseball. He was a shortstop who could, as they say, pick it.
We were at his house watching the Red Sox late that season, right around the time I started composing my stories. The announcer, Ned Martin, who was famous in New England for making Shakespearean references during his broadcasts, made some offhand remark about how the 1982 campaign was nearing its end.
I brought that up with my dad later at our house. I asked him if it would ever be 1982 again, and he said, no, when a year is done, it’s done, it doesn’t come around again. “It only gets the one chance?” I said. He replied in the affirmative. This blew my mind.
I asked if the same was true for whatever day that was, September 30, 1982, maybe. He said it was. Double blew my mind. He told me that a date on the calendar was finite. I’m not sure how I knew it—maybe it was something the universe had implanted in me before I was even a quasi-fish in a womb—but I knew that other things were not, and I knew that writing was one of them. I knew that my writing was one of them. Or it would be eventually, because like those characters I was first getting to know in Ms. Ferris’s third grade classroom, I understood that my own ability was in a block of marble, was encoded into the white page, was in the darkness awaiting the turning on of light, the coming of the sun. And as Sherlock Holmes solved a case, as I solved these early doodle-stories of mine, I was also going to solve my ability.
In finite time, for infinite purpose.
My dad had cut the grass that day. I walked over the lawn behind our house. I found a flat rock to sit on in the nearby woods, crisscrossed with walls made up of piles of stones that the farmers once used to separate their fields, long before we had arrived or were alive. The grass smelled good. I began to write in my head. I closed my eyes, and I wrote. I opened them, and I wrote. Had anyone seen me, I would have appeared to be an idle child doing no more than letting his eyes follow the path of a butterfly.
Which, really, is part of it, too.