In the Beginning: Aboriginal Words
So this is the story (one version, at least) of how and why I came to write a book.
In the spring of 2010, after a long period in my life — three years — of more or less committed vagabondage, I moved to a new town (Austin, Texas) with the clear intention to settle down for awhile. Wanderlust had lost its luster, on the one hand—part of the reason you travel is for novelty, but when traveling becomes your life, the continuity of the novel all blends together and becomes the new mundane—but, on the other hand and more importantly, a growing clarity about my life was telling me that it was time to stay in one place, that I needed to put roots down somewhere and grow that way for awhile.
So I moved, and I took my time settling in: creating a good home, getting to know the lay of the land, finding friends and developing community. Knowing I was going to be there for awhile, it felt sort of obviously important to lay a good foundation, for whatever was going to come next. And so that’s what I did, and I took my time about it. At the end of the year I went home (Colorado, where I grew up; the place where the plains rush up to meet the mountains, and where my true sense of home will always lie) for the holidays, with a sense of having now accomplished that initial foundation-laying task, but with no real clue about Next, about Okay, What Now. On my last night there, I was at my friend’s house, and he and I went out for one of our patented late night dog-walks with his two hound dogs. He lives on the edge of town, and it takes about five minutes of walking before you’re out of the neighborhood and into open country. We have this ongoing tradition now, when I come home for the holidays, of gearing up for the cold and going for these mega-walks at night, with his dogs, and sometimes battling coyotes (another story for another time), and all of us, humans and dogs, enjoying ourselves out in the semi-wild at night, the dogs doing dog-things (running around in circles) and the humans doing human-things (drinking beer slowly and talking).
On these walks, my friend and I typically end up engaging in a thorough conversational breakdown of the state of each other’s lives and beings. We’ve been quite close for a number of years now, and the walks function as a kind of deep status check, for both of us, as to how things are generally going. On this particular walk, of course, the topic at hand for me and my life was that What Now question. But larger than normal, that particular question, because we both understood that it entailed not just the immediate future, but also the laying down of a real path. At the end of the walk we were standing in his driveway, and I pulled out a last cigarette; lit it up, looked at my friend and suddenly it just came to me, and I said, “Shit, man…I have to write a book. There’s nothing else for me, it’s still in there, as much as it ever was, and it’s not going anywhere. I have to write it down.” And he, knowing me and the particulars of my life quite well, being as I am a person who keeps no secrets, I just can’t, it’s congenital with me for better or worse; anyways, he just looked back at me and nodded and said, “Okay. Well, now you know.”
And so that was the Moment, and it was that, with a capital “M” I mean. The sense was of looking up and suddenly realizing I had painted myself into a life-corner, and that writing a book—not just any book, but a book about that mysterious “it”, the “it” that my friend knew, exactly what I was referencing, the whole world of antecedent for which “it” stood in cloaked pronomial anonymity—that writing a book, was literally the last choice I had left. An odd mixture of constraint and liberation. Yes, my only choice. But at least that had finally clarified itself. Whether or not I was “ready”, wasn’t a question I needed to bother asking, anymore; it was just time, regardless.
Okay. So from this point, I think we should go a bit further back in time. When I say that I had arrived at this Moment, with a sense of having “painted myself into a life-corner”, yes, that’s true. But the key phrasing there is the “painted myself” part. In other words, the clear assumption of personal agency, in any and all of the decisions that led up to that Moment-point.
Most definitely, the choice to write a book felt like a real gamble, an enormously risky proposition. I think any decision, that’s driven by a sense of such strong compulsion, of obligation, necessarily entails that feeling of high stakes, of risk. But it was also a decision that arose from a from a structured process of logic and reasoning, that made a lot of good, clear sense.
Whether or not I’d come to recognize it yet (meaning I hadn’t), I was already a writer. Meaning, on the most basic level, a person who writes; but more fundamentally, a person who has a developed relationship with the process of writing. My “birth” as a writer was the result of an experience I had when I was 20 years old, an experience that, at the time, I termed as “my epiphany”. A strong wording, and indicative of the near-religious attachment I formed to the experience as a whole. I don’t want to go into detail about the experience and its particulars, as it’s overly tangential to the point here, but suffice it to say that it introduced a strong, clear direction into a life that was completely lacking in such at the time. And the clearest, most tangible manifestation of that direction came in the form of writing.
From a very young age I’d demonstrated a clear gift for dealing with language; a precocious vocabulary, intuitive grasp of linguistic mechanics, so forth and so on. And I loved, loved, loved, reading. I devoured books like a literary T-Rex, awkwardly holding them in my weird vestigial little arms (standard T-Rex joke I can’t help not making, sorry). But writing was more of a struggle; like having to go to a weird friend or relative’s house, and you really liked their toys, maybe, but weren’t allowed to play with them, or were allowed but only in specific, and fairly unimaginative, ways. I mean, I loved words, the feeling-sound of them in my mind. But the assignments, and the rules…bleah. Double-bleah, ick and argh to boot. By and large, the writing that I had to do, for school, over many years slowly murdered the idea that writing could or would be something that I enjoyed. A rigid adherence to an incredibly narrow stylistic range, combined with pedantic themes and boring subjects. Requirements I could easily satisfy, when I was able to derive the necessary willpower. But man, I had to really force myself, and even when I felt a vague sense of accomplishment/enjoyment, it was always deeply mitigated by the overall feeling that I was wasting, both my talents and my time.
The epiphany changed all that, in dramatic fashion. It was an experience that began, evolved and culminated over the course of several days — a week, pretty much — and writing was deeply embedded in the process. I wrote about it as I went along, for the first time in my life finding a desire, a need, to write about something, to sit down with pen and paper. And what I discovered, with a sense at the time that was sort of magical and astonishing, was that writing the experience down also drove it forward; that as I made these marks on this paper I wasn’t just recording the experience I was having but rather enabling it, creating it. Which, more or less kind of blew my mind.
Almost overnight, writing was suddenly very important to me, this wonderful new tool I’d found for understanding myself and my life. I wrote and wrote and wrote, nearly every night for about six months. Like a journal or a diary in terms of content, I mean I was writing about the internal process of my own life. But it was essentially different and more than that; I wasn’t writing to create a record, I was writing for the process of writing itself. Like finding a religion, and I practiced it with the devoted fanaticism of a new convert. Which faded over time, necessarily, petering out at the end of that six month period. I stopped, then, because I realized writing had become too important, that it had started to build fences around my lived experiences in a way that was problematic, to concretize things in word-form in a way that disabled organic growth. It was an important realization about the real power of words; but moreso because, functionally, it allowed me to divorce myself from that fanatical attachment; gave my relationship to writing, and language, the space that it needed to grow and evolve.
Which, it did. It receded from that position of primary importance, but remained as an integral life-component. My relationship to writing became sort of deeply patient; a place I went to that was, inherently, about the nature of time. You sit, and enclose yourself within a private world, composed of only yourself and your thoughts and your words. The words come, but you can’t make them come, can’t force the process; you have to wait, patiently, for them to emerge. The work of writing, to me, is basically about two things. The first is organization; choosing from amongst the words that present themselves, and subsequently aligning them in the correct procedural order for conveying significance and meaning. And the second is both quite simple and — at least to me — oddly profound, and it’s just the actual act of writing, the rendering of the abstract into the tangible. This second thing is true no matter how you write, but more noticeable with handwriting, with pen and paper. The deliberate nature of moving your pen, and watching a blank sheet slowly fill up with words. Something I noticed on my own, in a subconscious fashion, but that became clearer to me whenever someone would notice, and comment on, the distinctiveness of my handwriting; it’s idiosyncratic and almost pictorial, but still most definitely legible, and highly evocative to me now, regardless of content; a temporally-fixed manifestation of the work of writing, of what that work is.
So to return, then, my point is that one of the factors which went into my decision, at that Moment — post hound-walk, cigarette, friend’s driveway — that I was going to write a book; one of the logical, reasoned components of that decision, was that I was, already, a writer. Not self-identified, as such — I thought of myself as a “person who writes”, only, which is a subtle but important distinction — but still a writer, nonetheless, regardless of whether or not I knew it yet.
But really, the Moment wasn’t about logic or reasoning. The Moment was about: this is the only passage between where you are now, and the rest of your life. At the time, I didn’t understand why, not really. I gave a lot of thought to it, obviously, and as time went by I developed a number of different theories, all of which made a certain kind of sense. But it wasn’t until I was done, four years later, that I really came to see what that Moment meant. That it was the story in my body, which had been gestating for years, finally saying to me: I am done, and I am ready to come out now.