Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Moment I Knew

I don’t remember my first kiss much. Or my first date. Or that boy with dark wavy hair in seventh grade who played the saxophone during band class. Okay, maybe I remember him a teensy bit. But I do remember the first time I wrote something and it gave me a thrill.

Let’s call it The Moment I Knew.

The Moment I Knew didn’t seem like any particular moment at all. At least, it didn’t at the time. In fact, it could have happened in sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. Some of the finer details are a little fuzzy now. What I do remember is locking myself up in my bedroom in Clinton, Missouri, pop. 3,600, and writing a story about a woman who had grown up without electricity. I had interviewed the woman to write an essay for a contest. The Rural Electric Cooperatives of Missouri were offering students the chance to win a trip to Washington, DC. Didn’t that sound special? To a girl from pop. 3,600 Clinton, MO, it sounded more than special.

I asked my parents and friends of my parents for ideas about whom to interview. Several of them suggested a woman who had a warm reputation in town, Mrs. Vansant, who was somehow related to the local funeral home owners. This seemed a strange detail to remember, but not when you’re a kid from pop. 3,600 Clinton, MO. In small towns, folks were known for their strangeness, as if they had a patch on their sleeves that they’d wear about town—to the grocery store (Country Market), the only burger joint in town (Mr. Swiss), and the roller rink (that played ‘60s music). Oh goodness, I never saw Mrs. Vansant at the roller rink. She was in her eighties.

I called and made an appointment to interview her. She lived only a few blocks from my house in a neat duplex. When I say neat, I mean well-kept and tidy, not neat as in cool. Cool as in hip, not cool as in cold. Hip as in … oh, you get the idea. I vaguely remember taking a tape recorder to the interview. It might not have worked. We talked for an hour, and she imparted the story of how in her youth, at about my age, electricity first came to her home and neighborhood.

Admittedly, the details of her story take a back seat to mine. My memory doesn’t include so much her story as the sheer joy I took in writing an essay about her that eventually won the contest. I probably waited until the night before the deadline to write the essay. Hey, I was still a kid then, not a writer. There’s a recollection of a stern look or two from my parents. But once I committed to the page, the words flowed.
Not mine, though I wish it were.

One word in particular stands out in my memory. My first dictionary at my side, I decided to look up a different word for “resident.” It sounded too pedestrian (that’s another way of saying normal). In my newly induced writer’s zone, I found a beautiful fresh word. Denizen. Look it up. I had learned a new word, and it made me fall in deep like with language.

The rest of the essay came together, probably after a first, second, third draft. Back then I had a crummy electric typewriter that didn’t have proper erasing capabilities. I recall a few smudges, perhaps a tiny eraser hole in the paper. But my most distinct memory is the joy of the process. It was The Moment I Knew—that I knew writing was a gift of mine. That whatever was causing such a great ah-ha was darn cool by me. It was thrilling, no exaggeration. The weaving of the story, the typewriter ribbon, and the clackity-clack-clack of the keys on the platen (that’s the name of the black round cylinder in an old typewriter), every part of it made me happy. Could the hum of a writing machine and the ease of crafting a story be so wonderful?

This euphoric epiphany (look it up) didn’t dawn on me until much later in life. The Moment I Knew has had time to grow in grand scale to what it actually was. It was fun. Plain. Simple. Fun. And here I am, still clackity-clack-clacking away, thirty-five years later, searching for that next cool word.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Your Writing and the Snowflake

All the words have been written before. All the great lines have been published. The killer plots have been monetized and made into movies. DNA will be mapped. Clones, mass produced. Droids will replace the workforce. Stop now. It's no use.

Except, the snowflake.
Ollie and snow.

How can it be that one snowflake can never perfectly match another? (And I'm not talking about this snowflake.)

Snow forms by falling through the air and is determined by the path it takes to the ground. Water vapor is susceptible to its environment. So, you humanists out there, take heart that environment is more important that pre-determined factors about the source of the water vapor.

My writing, your writing, develops like the snowflake. No one else can write your story because no one else has lived through what you've lived through. You might make mistakes in style, technique, plausibility, wordiness, grammar, but the story is all yours. You might bore everyone by pg. 6, but it's all your boringness, and no one else's. (Congratulations, you're a bore!)

If we writers put our computers away and never write another sentence again, because we think we can't sell our stories, or because we do, in fact, bore people, what do we have left? Would it be like a world without snow? Now that sounds like the interesting start of a good story.

So, I write this blog for me and say that I write it for readers who have an interest in writing (or who know who I am or want to know more). But, mainly, I write it for me. Because I don't feel like a snowflake. I try to convince myself, "Yes, yes, you are meritorious in your pursuit," when a sense of futility weighs more on the scale.

Even famous, prescient writers felt this way. Octavia Butler often wrote notes to remind herself of her standing as an accomplished writer. She needed personal affirmation, even as an award-winning best-seller.

Who am I writing for? A commercial audience or myself? Does it matter? Maybe, like a snowflake, my writing is a singular, floating, temporary entity. Just me.