I wrote one of my first successful – I should say “impactful” – stories in an upstairs room that had been recently vacated by a roommate of mine.
I was a junior in college at the time, as was the roommate, who gave up the room to me after he’d decided between semesters that he needed a break from the grind; the anxieties were too much and could be better dealt with at home, where fewer distractions and questions would allow him space and time to focus.
I never considered the room my own, though it felt very similar in size to my room in my parents’ house: roughly as wide and deep as a mid-size sedan, with a closet next the door and a window opposite. But whereas my roommate’s room was a second-floor room, my room at home was in the basement, and dark. Oak paneling gave way to corkboard at the middle of each wall. The floor was cold tile. Next to the closet a dresser was built into the wall. The room my roommate vacated had painted drywall and carpeting that showed where my roommate had set his bed, his desk, and his dresser. The little craters in the carpet fibers were sure signs he was coming back. The room awaited his return.
I had fewer distractions writing in that room. In a way, his leaving to get some perspective cleared space for me to do the same. The stories and poems I wrote there, and the papers I submitted for classes, were of a character and quality I hadn’t up to that point been able to achieve on a consistent basis.
One essay I wrote for a poetry course began with a short reminiscence of some time I’d spent with friends hanging out on this strange rock formation a local historian had assembled in his backyard. The formation actually is sort of famous, as is the historian, who has travelled through much of the world giving lectures. I don’t know what he lectured on or taught. The rocks came back with him, though. (We’re really talking boulders, not rocks; things were huge — so massive it’s impossible to imagine them moved by anything smaller than a skid-steer or front-end loader or a crane.) I’d heard he chose each one, finding in each a significance I’m not sure he shared with others.
The occasion to write about this so-called “Temple” came after reading a Ted Kooser poem about a visit to a graveyard; the speaker notices several grave markers have been broken and mended, and uses the observation to make a comment about care and respect and taking action to help maintain what matters.
Another influence was Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles” — particularly the part in the poem about studying an object to find its pattern, then modeling one’s own effort after that pattern.
That may have been the first essay I wrote that felt both substantial and personal. I liked the connection I discovered between Kooser and Snyder and the Temple, the meaning inside of things.
It was also that these poems, and the Temple, spoke a lot about place, and the importance of knowing where you came from.
At that time, a lot of my anxieties were beginning to reach critical mass. Where writing was quickly becoming something I felt really passionately about, it was also turning as quickly into this terrifying endeavor.
On one hand, I’d discovered a way into all the hurt and the joy I’d experienced growing up: a couple of young loves, the usual adolescent successes and failures as an athlete, a friend, a musician, a student, and a son.
On the other, I was experiencing very acutely the need to excel, to impress, to inspire, and to amaze with my writing. I knew enough to write well in class, but I had much to learn otherwise.
I used to hang out the window of that room late at night, smoking cigarette after cigarette while taking a break from some story or poem I was working on. The apartment was a row, or terrace. I could sometimes see into the second-floor bedrooms of my neighbors living across the way, and beyond that a vacant lot that was left to grow weeds when the weather permitted. It was quiet; it was my time. I was stuck inside, not the world I was attempt to conjure in words on a page, but inside the feeling all creators get when all there is for them to do in the world is bring a vision to life.
I don’t know why the space never felt to me like my space. Respect for the roommate and his situation played a part, I think. If I took control of the room, then it would have meant I was glad my roommate had left, which wasn’t true.
I also think there was something about that creative feeling I was beginning to nurture – something I didn’t fully trust.
I mentioned above some of the troubles writing was helping me dig into. One of them was past relationships. At that time I was dating a woman with whom I’d become really close. To make a potentially long story short, let me just say that that relationship suffered to a degree because of the way my feelings moved according to how well I was writing. I also started to ask a lot of probing questions, and to doubt how much she was truly into a guy like me, who had much more confidence when alone than he did amongst others.
I was figuring out, as well, that writing was difficult work. Thankless work, too. I was struggling to learn how to keep up, how to write and rewrite, how to set aside comparisons and judgments of my own work. Never feeling satisfied with myself, both as a person and as a writer, likely would have left me feeling like a stranger no matter where I wrote.
At the same time, I was making friends with fellow writers and finding mentors among my workshop teachers. These fellows pushed and challenged me, frustrated and inspired me. They also made me envious of all the writing they did — most of which, for one reason or another, seemed much more vibrant and clever than anything I was doing.
Somewhere in the middle of all this came the idea to try writing about where I was from. To tell the story of home, as best as I knew how.
What came to me, what seems in memory to have floated up off the wind one night as I leaned way out that second-floor window to smoke, was to try and write about the river that ran through my hometown flooding over during the spring thaw. I had an image in mind of a swing set rising up from standing water like the ribcage of some gigantic, long-dead animal.
Also there was this idea of the moon landing, and this parade our town had held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of our hometown hero, Neil Armstrong, and his historic first steps on the lunar surface.
Maybe you’ve heard the conspiracy theory about how the moon landing had been faked in a sound stage on a Hollywood back lot. Well, I used to tell people I’d meet about being from the birthplace of the first man on the moon. And for every person who had no idea what I was talking about, there were two who did, and one of those two usually mentioned the conspiracy theory, the sound stage, or asked whether the whole thing wasn’t some gross waste of resources (what use was there in going into space when the economy was in the tanks, and there were kids who couldn’t read, a drug problem no one was paying attention to, etc., etc.).
When it came up, the idea that writers should write about the place they know best, this story kept surfacing — the story of the parade and people asking me whether it was all faked and whether it was even worthwhile. Like I was NASA’s standard-bearer.
What happened at the parade was — let me be clear that this was how I remember it, not necessarily how it happened — Mr. Armstrong didn’t show.
I don’t think he was under any obligation to show. I think the members of city council probably approached him about coming and he declined. Probably politely, too. He was a teacher, and by all accounts a quiet man who kept to himself and handled his celebrity by withdrawing from public attention. He was no Buzz Aldrin, let’s say. Assuredly not. If he had anything to do with Buzz Aldrin it was to represent the exact opposite personality type.
Still, I know that I told a few people that there’d been a parade, and a float with a chair Mr. Armstrong would have sat on if he’d shown up.
But he didn’t show. So the chair remained vacant.
This image, along with the image of the swing set as animal ribcage, made it into a story I tried to tell about this place I was from.
I’m not proud for making it sound like he’d stood the whole town up. That hadn’t been the case. I’d only been trying to tell a story using where I was from to try and make things interesting. I wasn’t convinced I had anything else of interest to offer others. I wasn’t convinced I had anything worth fighting for myself.
I was like my roommate in this regard. But whereas he had had the guts to say so and to go home and try to find some perspective, I’d chosen a much more difficult, much less certain way of dealing with my own personal shit and what seemed then like a murky future.
I no longer have this story I wrote in service of personal clarification and rediscovery. I’m certain the drafts I received from my workshop peers are long gone. The computer on which I’d written and saved the story, which had sat in the desk I’d placed below the window in my roommate’s old room, has since become the computer my father uses to compose and save his own documents. Its memory has been wiped; the floppy disks containing the files I’d asked my parents to save off the hard drive might as well not even exist. (They’ve become like the VHS cassettes of the PC world, floppy disks. This is by way of saying my current computer has no floppy drive.)
All I have left of that piece is what I have left of most of my life: half an idea, an incomplete understanding of what went on and what things mean, and the limited perspective time and maturity afford me. What I remember involves the protagonist, a boy whose father had become obsessed with the Moon landing — so much so that he constructed an elaborate stage in the detached garage in order to reenact the whole thing himself. There was a flood, and a parade, and a former astronaut who didn’t show. The whole thing revolved around that boy trying to capture at least some of his father’s attention by taking the astronaut’s place at the end of the parade.
While his father climbs out of his makeshift lander and steps foot on the hard gravel he’s spread across the garage floor, his son climbs onto the float and sits in the throne the astronaut has left empty.
More than these details, what I remember most about this piece is the reaction it received from teachers and peers in workshop. I’d described the story as impactful; we’d had a visiting writer teaching our undergraduate workshop that semester, and she called the story “great”. Or maybe she said it was a good story. But she said it like, ” What a great/good story!” It filled my heart, made me proud, caused me to think — as most young writers do — that one comment not only meant I had done something brilliant, but that I was brilliant.
I was decidedly not brilliant. I’m not brilliant now. I can write more effectively now, with more assurance and ease. But nothing I’ve written since that piece, not even the few stories I’ve had published, has elicited the kind of reaction from readers as that story. I think, in a way, that this is how it should be. Not that I think the teacher who complimented the story was wrong to have done so. She was attempting to encourage all of us in that class to keep writing no matter what — to continue to find value in doing the work. She was a few years away from success herself. She’d published a few novels but had yet to write her commercially successful book; she was likely very acutely aware of how crucial the rare victory was to help a writer keep the faith.
Because I think she knew, and was trying to teach us, that what matters most was — is — keeping the faith. It may not always yield the strongest work; writing into the dark and quiet we find when we tune into ourselves may not always leave us at our strongest, either. But it brings us to where we belong, reminding us at the very least — when we write honestly and openly — to think carefully about who we are and what we ought to make of it.
What I have tried to keep from that time is the feeling of being at work, of writing into the night in that upstairs room. That room I borrowed from my roommate continues to shape the mental space I recreate each time I sit down to write.