First, it was for friendship. We’re talking middle school, and I remember an emerging awareness of popularity, of some nascent knowledge that there was cool and not cool. I decided that, in sixth grade, I was not cool. But, luckily for me, cool was just being defined. And there were some leaders of cool emerging, and I remember trying to use a school writing assignment to get me to be cool. I knew the players, the boys and the girls, who were already on that list. So I wrote a short story where the cool guys and cool girls all end up together–real names and everything–and I showed it to the most approachable cool guy at the time, who laughed and showed it around to the others and before long, I was sitting somewhere else in the lunchroom.
This was mostly luck, and this could have ended in brutal bullying (although, maybe I was more confident than I felt back in 1992). But I also see this as the first time I knew writing could yield currency. In this case, the currency of friendship. Which you know means the next example: love.
Of course I used writing to attempt to woo girls. And I don’t know if it ever worked to get anyone’s attention, but I had a girlfriend whom I really thought I loved in middle school and I wrote stories about her (nice ones, romantic ones, with personification and everything) and she stuck around for a long time.
Writing, though, primarily helped me say what couldn’t be said. When I would grow frustrated with one of my parents, often it was dad and often it had to do with the drink, I couldn’t speak the hurt or frustration or disappointment or encouragement that I wanted to share. I felt too small. So, I would write letters. I’d leave them in places around the house where only the addressee would find it: sock drawers or work boots or, my favorite, inside the pillow case. And, strangely, they would write back. It wasn’t perfect, but I could find peace in just writing those letters. Usually, by the time I snuck the folded paper into its barely-hiding place, I was empty of whatever I’d been feeling when I addressed the letter.
There is another kind of writing I’ve experienced that I’m reluctant to talk about because it’s seems, I don’t know, maybe stereotypical, maybe self-aggrandizing, maybe like total bullshit. I’m talking about the call of writing, the kind of writing that is of a different kind of currency–more electric than financial. The kind of writing that just appears suddenly with you and you no choice but to get it out. It’s the kind of writing that is not entirely yours but makes you feel lucky that you were asked to help.
This first happened to me, also, in middle school. I was riding in my cousin’s family car, six of us on the way to a barbecue in Upstate New York. I sat behind the driver’s side, I had a window. We were driving along these really idyllic-seeming places in the country: I yellow meadows and white sunlight and flat space to roam and the mountains and green forest beyond. I felt an urgency overtake me. I asked for a pen and some paper and someone gave me a small notebook and a blue marker. (To think that I must have held that urgency while whoever went digging for a pen and paper, that nobody in the car, ont aunt or uncle or cousins, asked what I expected to accomplish in the rumbling back seat. How lucky.) It was an insistent, pushing feeling, and when they gave me the pen and paper I started to draw the countryside, a deer and some pine trees and clouds, and then I started to go a little blank and then I wrote a poem. And I felt euphoric while writing it, wrapped in something safe but definitely apart from me. The poem was about god and nature and sunlight. I don’t remember if I read it out loud (I probably was too self-conscious for that, because I know it felt weird to have such a powerful experience happen to me and not because of me), and I don’t remember giving the poem to anyone. But somehow my aunt and my father (who were not exactly close to one another) both carried copies of that poem with them for a long time.
So, here I am, blizzard around me, baby sleeping in the room above me, and I’m still tapping away at this keyboard, still trying to articulate what it is that needs getting out. I’m not always sure about what to say or when. But about writing, I can say that I still do the work for those same reasons I hit upon in middle school: to impress existing friends or to make new ones; to ensure my wife still likes me; to articulate that which requires time and exact language to express; and to satisfy this sometimes-pulsing, automatic desire to create. Of course, the inspirations all factor in at varying degrees now. For example, I know my wife loves me, and I know that she prefers a lovingly prepared meal to a quick love note (but only barely). And, well, I have friends, but I’m always looking for more. And those spiritual inspirations are easier to come by when they are cultivated with practice and patience. And it’s only in the quiet space of writing that I can often see what I truly believe about a topic or a memory or a narrative possibility.
But I’m still not sure where the urge to write comes from. I don’t remember learning how to read or write, so maybe that’s where the dust got all kicked up. Maybe in that empty part of my memory where the rudiments of language were sparked and welded to my synapses, maybe that’s where the magic is stored: it must be in that great gift of literacy that the daemons and geniuses live out their hectic and beautiful days, silently urging some of us who are more sensitive to their touch to open up again and again and again.