To Be a Writer

To Be a Writer

I get up from in front of my computer, my back aches, I pace, I step out onto the balcony, step back inside, glare at my computer. Reluctantly, I sit down, staring at the few words I’ve managed to get down. I read them over for the tenth time. Words, they are nothing more. If they manage to tell a story, they are still words. And the story they will tell? I suppose that depends on the reader if he or she even exists.

Why would anyone want to be a writer? I ask myself this all the time. And what does it even mean? To be a writer. Of fiction? Non-fiction? Blog posts? News reports? Writers take on many shapes and sizes – and colors. Now a painter, that is something real. I think I’d like to be a painter. Stand in front of a grand, wide, blank canvas, considering while I mix the paints, yes, that’s it, I got it now, an image comes to mind, I mix the paints a little more before I begin. Bravo. A masterpiece in the making. It will surely catch someone’s eye. Why the colors alone are spectacular. Unlike words on a page. Who can make any sense of ticks and tacks and slashes and dots? Why even learn the words? English? French? Spanish? German? Farsi? Arabic? So many ways to slash and dot, dot, dot.

It’s hopeless. To say anything. My back aches even more now and the words make less sense. Chicken scratches. I can almost hear them scratching around in the sand. Pecking the sand for grubs. Or handfuls of grain. My grandmother had chickens and in the summer when we went to visit her, I would go with her in the early morning into the chicken coop to sneak a hand under the hens as they nestled in their nests of straw to snatch the eggs, put them in the woven basket, knaaaw, knaaaw, the chickens nestled there, and my grandmother and I snatched their eggs from underneath them to put in the woven basket to take back inside to fry in bacon grease to serve on green and yellow and blue plates with fried potatoes and buttered toast and steaming bowls of oatmeal with rich cream and sugar. Coffee for the grownups. It always smelled so good, the coffee as it percolated in the coffeepot on the stove, its bitterness disguised by sugar and cream and the steam rising from the cup as you brought it to your lips, blowing and sipping and smiling when you set the cup down again. It was reassuring somehow, the cup of coffee there on the table next to your yellow plate of eggs and bacon and fried potatoes. Sopping up egg yolk with the buttered toast, leaning back to sip the steaming coffee, putting the cup down again when grandmother shuffled around the table to pour the steaming coffee from the coffeepot. Thank you, everyone said.

To be a writer you first have had to be a snatcher of eggs. And smelled chicken yards. Soiled straw and shit. Lots of it. And known the smell of coffee as it percolated on the stove. The smell of bacon sizzling in a cast iron skillet and eggs crackling and toast popping up and small talk from everyone sitting around the table. Nothing important. No politics or philosophy or religion. Maybe the mention of a ballgame. Or the heat of summer. No rain. Not since spring. Everything burning up.

What is it to be a writer? Nothing besides scratching at the computer looking for grubs or what’s left from a handful of grain. Writers don’t even lay eggs.

To be a writer, you better never look away. When he’s ordered out of the house by my grandmother because the rooster, so full of himself now, is pestering the laying hens, I follow my grandfather out to the small toolshed to retrieve the double-bitted ax, testing each edge with his thumb, smiling, placing his heavy hand on top of my head, I look up at him in awe and know it is time, half-running, half-stumbling  to keep up with him as he stamps to the chicken pen, throws open the gate, chickens scattering, and corners the rooster with his outstretched arms, wings wild and frantic, polished claws tearing at the chicken wire, but there is no escape from my grandfather’s practiced hand that in the blink of an eye grasps the rooster by its scrawny legs, carrying the flapping wings away from his body to the chopping block, and with one swift motion of the ax it is done. As a writer you better not look away so you can remember the taste of the blood splattered on your grandfather’s face and eyeglasses, the smell of panic and fear, the delirious squawking, the rooster fleeing, blood spurting from its headless neck. My grandfather stands solid and patient, the ax held in his big hand. I never look away.

To be a writer you’d better remember how the world looked inside out and far, far away the day you were called away from work to rush home to get the news that your son wasn’t coming home. Ever again. Everything looked as if you were looking at it from the wrong end of a telescope, nothing was real. You’d better remember, even though this memory tears your guts out and you collapse on the floor in anguish that has no end. You’d better remember even though you’d give anything to forget.

To be a writer you have to escape into your imagination, wherever that is. A place you’ve been before but don’t recognize. Like a dream. It is familiar until you wake up and it is far away. A mystery. Are there multiple universes? Parallel universes? Strands of two separate universes, like DNA, so finely woven together that we can’t be sure when we spin out of one and into the other. And back. One day we won’t return.

This thing called consciousness, maybe it is just a memory of something that might or might not have happened. When the rooster finally yields to its headlessness, grandfather carries it by its skinny legs inside to the pot of water grandmother has boiling on the stove, dunks it for several minutes to loosen the feathers, and pulling it out of the pot hands it to you to take outside to pluck. This is your job. As a writer I do as I am told.

It is Sunday and grandmother back from church slips back into her apron and waits for you to finish plucking and gutting the rooster so she can dismember it, drumsticks and thighs and breasts to roll in flour, salt, and pepper and drop into the splattering vegetable oil in the heavy cast iron skillet.

There is too much commotion in the tiny kitchen with grease sputtering and popping so grandmother swooshes us away. Go find something to do outside, she says. My mother is there now to mash potatoes and boil corn on the cob. Go on, get outside, she says in support of grandmother. It is too nice a day to be inside. We’re hungry. How can you be hungry, you just had breakfast? Three hours ago, we whine. Get out, now. We know she means it and we scatter.

It was a summer day, afternoon, but still hours from sunset. I remained hopeful, right up until the last moment. When hope is gone, the air goes out of everything, like being inside a tornado, debris whirling all around you and inside nothing but oppressive silence. She told them no, the coroner and the deputy sheriff when they asked her if she wanted her husband there. She called afterward to tell me that I needed to come home. What’s up? You need to come home is all she said. She was crying. No, I screamed in my head. No, no, no, I screamed during the five-minute drive home that lasted an eternity. I am still in the car driving home, still living inside that five minutes that stretches out ahead of me forever. Will it ever end?

To be a writer I need to stop the car and get out and go inside. I need to do this if I want to be a writer. And never look away. She is a million miles away, so small, so broken, whirling in debris and despair. Even if I tried, I can’t reach her. She is spinning away from me to another universe.

Grandmother is on the porch hollering for us to come in to dinner. We are scattered everywhere but her piercing voice reaches us and in a herd we crash through the narrow door off the back porch. Wash your hands. And the herd overflows the lone bathroom, crowding the sink like hogs to the trough, water splashing everywhere, pretending to dry our hands with a limp hand towel. The grownups saunter into the kitchen because their places at the table are secure. Besides, they know it is not their last meal, things don’t work that way in their universe.

As a writer, you have to accept the fact that you won’t always know when you’ve left one universe and crossed into another one. There are no doors.

Memories like intertwined strands of separate universes whirl toward us from out of the dark spaces of consciousness. They exist together even though they are divided by space and time. As a writer, you will need to understand that time and space are fantasies. To exist in one universe doesn’t mean you don’t exist in another one at the same time.

That day never ends. The day I drive home to hear what I can’t fathom, can’t grasp, can’t swallow. The news that comes to me from a million miles away. The news that knocks the air out of everything. Every day it comes to me. I never know when it will invade my day, I don’t even know how hard it will kick the life out of me. Gut punch. The memory exists in my head but kicks the guts out of me. And my heart cries. Separate universes? When all I want to do is snatch eggs from underneath dozing hens, I lie crumpled on the floor of despair.





Leave a Reply