Photo: andrew smith
Cars and trucks glittered in the neon. I was looking hard, seeing details: the hippie couple ahead of me, both white kids with dusty dreds, the woman in a raggedy patchwork skirt, skipping like a kid. I was looking hard. I was thinking of the Black cop in Reservoir Dogs; “…get the details was the soap yellow liquid or that gritty pink powder?” — Journal entry, 2/16/95
I read my way through the shadows of my childhood. My mother intended to give me a love for books. She succeeded — in equal measure by intention and by going psychotic again and again. I learned to pay attention to the details: the ambulance parked in our driveway, the still figure on the gurney, the empty pill bottle left on the bedroom rug.
Once she had tried suicide a second time, I began to watch for signs. The descent was more terrifying than the final act — always an attempt that occurred in time for my father or me to find her. I learned the details. Her face would begin to lose color. Her eyes would go flat. There would be a casserole on the kitchen table, a note, and that stillness that I would see as color. Yellow-gray.
There was no one to tell. It was 1946, 1948, 1950, 54, 56, and 58. No one spoke of bipolar disorder or even mental illness. They might have whispered, “Lillie had another nervous breakdown.” with the same horror they would say of another, “He had the Big C.”
There was no one to tell. My father was terrified. It was 1946, 48, 50…men were not supposed to be afraid. Or helpless.
In all of this, I had no idea I was being trained to be a writer.
I told no one. Then, on a day my mother’s mind was clear, she took me to our little farm-town’s library, tucked into the basement of the one bank. It was the only place that was cool during the humid northeastern summers. The librarians were all women of a certain age.
My mother signed me up for my own library card. I walked into the children’s section and understood I had found shelter.
I read every night. Summer was best because even after bedtime I could read by the long, generous eastern twilight outside the western window. I read till my eyes ached. And, when I finally crawled into bed, I pulled the covers up over my face and watched the stories play out behind my eyelids.
For 10 years I read and carefully watched my mother; then, I found myself watching the rest of the world with almost as much attention: the way December twilight turned the snow to sapphire; how maple leaves went not just scarlet, but each red in my watercolor box; how lightning was a brilliant opening in a midnight sky.
I was twelve the first time I wrote a story. It was a northeastern version of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. The little boy became a little girl. The deer became a raccoon. The devastation became the bulldozing of the creeks and hills of my homeland. In fact, Kodak and Xerox had expanded. Suburbs spread everywhere. In my story, the raccoon lost its woodland home. There were abundant details: sapphire light, alizarin crimson leaves, lightning seaming the July sky, how a field of ragged stumps was a carcass.
I wrote. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea I was detailing a world.
To do: Sit or stand or walk for 30 minutes. Do nothing but pay attention to the details: light, colors, sound, scent, how the air moves, light and shadow. Write later and see if the details fill out the writing. See if they make a sliver of the world.
First published at Matador’s travel journalism school, MatadorU.