Fourteen was a bad year. Fifteen was worse. That year, death found me. Not the cold, impersonal death of newsprint statistics, but the brutal yet empty death that took the faces and the lives of three of my childhood friends and made me, for the first time, understand nothingness.
It was 1984. I had read George Orwell’s book the year before and its prophecies had not come to pass–at least not obviously–but that was no comfort. Living in Reagan America, even worse things threatened. Every week I had recurring nightmares of complete annihilation of Earth, nuclear holocaust, and the total absence of any human life but mine. I was alive, but life would always be a void, never to be filled.
Two weeks before my sixteenth birthday, I sat at the kitchen table and felt absolutely nothing. Something like nausea, yet not located in me, but rather me located inside it. And I remember a cold sense of purposelessness. I remember not being able to find where Dad had moved his .38 revolver. I remember thinking it would be a mess to clean up my splattered brains from the dining area, anyway, and I definitely didn’t want to be a burden…and I remember having to come up with Plan B. I remember the entire thing being all too logical.
I remember ten minutes later holding my neck, blood oozing through my fingers and a razor at my feet. I can’t say what made me staunch the flow. I can’t tell you why I chose to live. At such moments, I doubt anyone could ever say what goes through the mind. I only know that shortly after, I sat down and scribbled something from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (I’d read it just a couple weeks earlier) on the Wednesday evening edition of the Times:
“It is not death that a man should fear, but rather fear never beginning to live.”
The rest of the day I spent reading. And the rest of the next day, and the day after, and the day after that. I read the poetry of John Donne, Platero y Yo by Jimenez, Epictetus and Montaigne. Poe. Beowulf. The Odyssey. The Koran. Manchild in the Promised Land. Gwendolyn Brooks. Dickinson. The Book of Kells. Norman Spinrad. Saki. Edith Wharton ghost stories. Keats. Anything within reach. And in reading I found a way out of the darkness. I found that the walls, those walls so beloved by white suburban America (good fences make good neighbors), those walls that protected our egos from all those terrible, terrible things that television nightly lulled my family and friends into believing–those walls were cracked, and through that crack many things could enter, yes, but also could exit.
I walked through.
And I began to write.
I wrote to see what I understood, to test my knowledge. That is, after all, what story means, isn’t it? To learn? And in telling my stories, and reading my stories and others’ I learned more deeply.
I write because I remember the sensation of my fingers down my friend’s throat as I forced her to vomit up the thirty vicodin pills she had swallowed. Because no one told her story, no one told her that others had been to that same abyss and left a record, if only she could have seen it. I write to make sure her story is never forgotten…or repeated.
I write because my friend drove himself into a river to wash away his story in the symbolic water, and I never had the chance to tell him how much I loved him. I write to erase the pain of his writing on his suicide note. To preserve. To remember. To honor. To sanctify.
I write because the writing of others preserved my own life, realigned my own soul, clarified my own thoughts so that I could live. I write because when nothing else could reach me, someone’s writing did. I write so that all those other desperate fifteen year-olds, feeling the same black void of emptiness I once felt, might stumble across what I write and have my writing change their lives.
I write poetry because poetry changed my life. I write fiction because fiction changed my life. I write about art because art saved my life. I write stories because stories saved my life, but more importantly, because they will save the lives of others. How easy it is to dismiss it all as the sole province of weirdos, art fags, and hipsters–until one’s own self splits open and there are no stories to guide, nothing to light the way.
My dear friend and sister from another mister S.P. asked a few of her writer friends to consider why they started writing. Her contention was that writers get so distracted by “fame” and “success” they lose sight of what’s important. Maybe. Maybe they just forget because it is so easy to become isolated, to dissolve completely in one’s own story. Maybe they forget that language is not for them alone but rather for them to reach others.
I have never forgotten. To write is noble. It is easy to forget this because one seldom hears the response of those one may have reached. I may never know how many, or how deeply I have affected. This does not devalue my work or my love. I write not because you care, but rather because someday, someone will.
I have a son who has no interests. None. I cannot recall the last time he said something positive about anything, not, as one might think, because of hip, teen po-mo cynicism or affectation, but because he genuinely lacks the ability to get excited. There is nothing he cares about. He is simply passing time.
And there may be a time, very soon, where he needs a story. One that may change his life, as mine was changed–or as it could have been changed.