I wrote my first story when I was six years old. Except, that may be a lie. It’s possible that I wrote something before, but I can’t remember and, if I did, the lack of either a physical or mental record of its existence means that, for all practical purposes, it never existed. That’s incredibly humbling, is it not? Think of the vast multitudes of people who’ve lived, learned, loved, built, discovered, wept, rejoiced, and died about whom no memory remains. People often forget that history is the story of people, and not just of the neurotic, sociopathic, and idiosyncratic figures who sit enthroned in the human memory of history with a disproportionate amount of the credit for shaping its direction. In some small way, I can understand a little why some people invest so much time into achieving things to warrant people remembering them beyond death. In some cultures, more than one concept of death exists, with the final being, for some, the saddest of all: the moment when no one remains to remember you.
When I was six, my grandmother and her husband (who I called Papaw) lived in a house where the first floor was partway underground. It was set in the side of a hill, one of the western foothills of the marginally larger hills generously named the Ouachita Mountains. To sit on the second floor porch and amble back and forth in the swing was to be afforded a view of a wide valley, comfortably cloaked in a blanket of cottonwood, oak, elm, pine, and cedar. Time had grown impatient and was reclaiming the things which had been appropriated for human purposes: the rotten railroad-tie steps leading from the parking courtyard to the elevated yard, the well-rusted barn roof at the base of the hill, the old outbuildings in various stages of falling down. One sleepy afternoon, I happened across a composition book on a shelf in the kitchen. I think my grandmother, who I call “Neeny,” had used it to write down a recipe or two but she let me have it. The blanket of dust on its zebra-printed cover suggested she wouldn’t miss it and I immediately set about writing stories in its pages.
The first (as well as the second, third, and probably the fourth too) followed a very simple and familiar arc: an animal, which in the first was a cat, awakes and eats breakfast; on page two, he ate lunch and, on page 3, dinner; on page 4 he let out some utterance of supreme contentment and then, on page 5, went to sleep. I forget the animals who experienced this gastric bliss in the next two or three stories, but they all did much the same thing. It was, I believe, the fourth or fifth story when things began getting a little more complex. This one was called “Billy and His Friends.” Billy was a rabbit, and he had a lot of friends. One was a badger, as I recall, while the rest were an assortment of forest-dwellers that I’ve since forgotten. Billy lived in a house and his friends came over one day to play a game–baseball, I think. They played and had a good time and then they all went home, after which it grew dark and Billy went to sleep in his house. The deeper meaning here is much easier for me to remember: I, like Billy, was the only kid who lived in my house, which was far outside of town, and I’d always wished there were kids close around who could come over to play.
Later in life, I started helping Papaw and my uncle with work in the hay-field every summer. The first such summer, like many summers in Oklahoma, was one when the rain proved fickle and lacking. The grass was thin and the sun seemed to blaze in anger overhead. Each field that was cut, raked, and bailed seemed to yield far fewer of the great truncated tubes of wound grass than it seemed it would at first cutting. There’s little else to do but think when you’re sitting on a tractor driving in circles around a field and pulling a huge rake behind you. The sounds of the world beyond are suffocated in the roar of a massive engine, the sights excluded by the need to keep your eyes on the spinning rakes, the smells squelched by the aroma of freshly mowed alfalfa and burning diesel fuel. To this day, the smell of cut grass brings memories of hay bailing flooding back from my memory.
No sooner had one field been cut and bailed then we had to hurriedly pack up the equipment, haul it across the county, and get it all set up again in time to bail another before the grass there burned up. Neeny repeatedly suggested that they just buy hay instead of harvesting it themselves. “There’s no point in chasing hay all over the country,” she’d say. It took me years and years to begin to understand why they (and specifically my uncle once Papaw succumbed to the fatigue of sickness and took his own life) continued the difficult work of harvesting the grass in the summer to feed the herd in the winter themselves. That deep-seated desire to build and create things for yourself is difficult to express in words, at least partially because it is manifested in different ways in different people. The activity of creation is something to which humans are instinctively predisposed, sometimes even to an extent that it can be irrational. Bailing hay is hard work: the equipment is always breaking down, the weather never seems to cooperate, and the good news is often sparse and far between. But, even so, the victories must make it worth it.
Writing is a lot like chasing hay, in my experience at least. It’s hard to capture the essence of a feeling and express it through something as clunky and haphazard as language. It takes a delicate and varying balance of smooth finesse and brute force of will to make an emotion sit still in a sentence or a paragraph so someone else can take hold and experience it. Thoughts come and go and the desire to express them takes on an urgency born of the fact that they go just as easily and spontaneously as they come. The things we have to say are, in some sense, a lot like us: here one minute, carried away in the wind the next. The important words with the careless ones, the great speeches with the elementary school love notes, the princes with the paupers, as it were: all ebb and fade into stillness. As the Psalmist said (103:15-16) of people, so true also were his words of the important things we have to say:
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
What’s the point then? If the hope of the things we put down on paper entering the human memory is so microscopically minuscule as to be hopeless, then why bother? This sentiment, as you may have guessed or learned before through my writing, is extremely irritating to me. Who cares if anyone remembers you fifty years after you’ve died? Your life is yours, so live it. Who cares if nothing you’ve written ends up on college course syllabi? I can attest to the fact that most of that latter stuff is worthless shit anyway. Don’t make the mistake of confusing notoriety with being good at what you do. The best writers are those who can’t help but write, in much the way that the best singers are those who can’t help but sing. Maybe they get remembered, maybe they don’t. So what if it is hay, to be eaten by bovines and then discarded? The threshold for success as a writer is at once infinitely high and paradoxically low, in that one need only write something that speaks meaningfully to one person. Don’t be fooled though, that’s nothing easy. Creating something, anything, that breathes something fresh into another human’s soul is profoundly mysterious, and involves, in my opinion, more than a small dollop of mere good fortune.
There’s one more analogy I can make, which is that writing, or at least the act of writing, is very much like music. The way humans hear meaning in what is essentially just random sounds is a mystery all its own, and one warranting its own extended discussion. As James Baldwin writes in the short story “Sonny’s Blues,” music (and, for our purposes, writing) involves the imposition of human will on chaos to the end of producing meaning. No small task. Not even the best writers are always successful in that endeavor, but those fleeting moments of transcendence are what make all the work worth the effort, whether anyone remembers them or not. When the writer wins, everyone does.
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.
~ James Baldwin