On Saturday night, my laptop crashed. Even in my days of not caring so much about what happened to my computer, this had never happened to me. It happened during a seemingly innocuous sending of a picture to my sister-in-law, a photograph of her and her sisters, including my wife. It is a particularly nice picture that I thought she might enjoy as a background photograph on her own computer, maybe to print out and frame, or maybe to delete without even opening. Whatever.
It’s tough to remain calm when a computer crashes, especially as a writer because, well, it would have been catastrophic for me. On the hypothetical list of “writer’s who are good at backing up important documents,” I’m at the bottom. All of my files – published, unpublished, finished, unfinished – 100’s of thousands of words were somewhere in the abyss. We got about a foot of snow on Saturday into Sunday, so I was even unable to bring it to the Apple store that day. I had to wait in some sort of a writer’s purgatory, not knowing which way the situation would go.
In the end, yes, it was a hard drive crash. They were able to temporarily recover my files for long enough for me to purchase an external hard drive to backup everything that I needed: writing, photographs, music. It wasn’t a $200 I wanted to spend on repairing my computer, but it was far better than losing everything and having to buy a new computer.
With that being explained, I made the joke that I “needed a vacation” anyway. My computer would be in the mechanic’s shop, getting repaired and recovering to be a better machine. However, I found myself to be at some level of loss. I didn’t know how long I was going to be without my computer and I didn’t know what I would actually do besides sit on the couch reading or watching shows about Alaska on Netflix. There hasn’t been a day that had gone by in as long as I can remember that I didn’t write anything, even if it were a simple response to an e-mail or a note in my “random thoughts” file.
Like most writers, I’ve tried to quantify and qualify the effect of writing on my life. I’ve written about influences and style; I’ve written about why I write and what I write about, but I’ve never truly been happy with these explanations or writing in their totality. They seemed banal, like trying to tell someone why you love your wife, those short “she makes me a better person” platitudes people put into their vows.
To write is a very personal act that allows other persons to take someone else’s story and make it their own. We have books that we read, writers we adore and we take their words and give them our own meaning. Sometimes a shark is just a shark, as Hemingway noted. An innocent observation to one person is a profound epiphany to another. Some people write to figure out how they feel about a topic; Others write to find out why they feel the way they do. A personal act.
This blog has become, at times, a place for me to write as a warm-up drill. I find it soothing to get into my daily bout with the pages of a novel or longer journalistic work by first finding myself tell a story about me on the screen. Often I begin to write without knowing where I’ll end up and the art of “not knowing” is what drives me as a writer. In any work, I often have no idea where the story will end. We’re told to have an ending already written. When I worked in sports journalism, this was easy. The game was over, tell the story. It’s much more exciting when we don’t know how it’s going to end. It can be frustrating in the opposite when we don’t know how to start. But we always do somehow.
There are ways I could have written without my computer. I have pens and pencils and blank sheets of paper. I have notebooks with empty pages that are yearning to be filled. There was some of that, but not much. We write where we’re most comfortable, on the device on which we feel the most at home. I write at a desk upstairs at my house, my dog breathing loudly in one of the adjacent rooms. And, I think, this is my point here. When I was without a laptop, when I was had no access at all to my files, my words, I felt lost. My hands didn’t know what to do, my brain began to conjure up images I couldn’t transfer to pages. It was like the stomach growling for food that wasn’t coming soon. My characters, my stories were stuck, stagnated somewhere on an inaccessible page.
This may sound corny. I’m aware of this. I do not know where my stories will go. I do not know if they will ever be good enough for other people to want to read them. But they are on a journey. They are on a journey of not knowing. Essentially, we’re on the same trip together. Neither of us know where we’re going, but we’re going there together.
I had a link to include from The Atlantic, which was fodder for this post. It was a year in advice from writers like Stephen King, Jonathan Franzen, Paul Harding, all terrific, successful writers. They have their own feelings about writing, their own advice to give aspiring novelists. I think it’s worth checking out. Here it is.
But, more importantly, I think, is to evaluate our own lives in this way. What advice would you give to others about being a good writer or accountant? About being a good dad or mom? And how does this advice inform our own living? How do our feelings on the thing in our lives that mean the most to us inform the way we go through our lives?
In the very small town of Greensboro Bend, Vermont there is a brewery named Hill Farmstead. It’s run by a man by the name of Shaun Hill. The beers are world-class offerings, highly sought-after, hard-to-get (unless you feel like taking an adventure into rural Vermont), and, in a word, delicious. Since Greensboro Bend is approximately three hours from me, I do have the luxury of making the trip there and back. It’s not an easy or desirable trip, but for special occasions, I do believe the quality of the beer and the ability to share it with people who can’t get it is worth the drive.
That being said, this isn’t about beer or rural Vermont. It’s about fear. Healthy fear.
Yesterday, as I began the arduous part of my drive – the 20 miles or so of windy country roads – it began to snow. It was nothing that would accumulate much in inches, but would make hills and roads wet. It would make driving my two-wheel drive vehicle tough to manage at points. Now, I’m a very good driver. And I don’t want to do the whole, “It’s not me I worry about, it’s the others” so I’m not going to. I do worry about going down a hill at even a manageable speed and my brakes giving out, sending me into traffic. This, even for good drivers, is a possibility. There are many steep hills in Vermont. On the roads leading to this brewery, too, are many hilly and curvy roads that were becoming icy and sloppy and wet as I waited in a two hour line for beer. At one point, I considered leaving and driving home before it got too bad.
I drove tight-fisted, highly-aware of speed and surrounding, conscious to every movement my car was making one way or another. Twenty miles of backroads, all unplowed, all some degree of slope. Accelerate the upslope of the hills, veeerrrry light brakes on the curves, slow down hills. Even on the highway, when I had to pass through Franconia Notch in New Hampshire (which I believe is the highest elevation on my drive) it was a snow globe. We were single file going down an unplowed hill. On false move – and it doesn’t even have to be anything I do wrong – could send me off the road, down a hill. Literally could be fatal. It’s the fear of the possibility, not a grave possibility, but a minor one.
This wasn’t the first time that weather has affected my ability to get to Hill Farmstead. In March, I came from the west – I was there for my bachelor party – and attempted to make the trip in the same car. We came to a hill about two miles from the brewery (it might even have been less than that). Impassable. We couldn’t make it. It was a one-car only road – yes, this is how rural this place is – packed with probably eight inches of snow, a 45 degree angle upward. Behind me, about 800 yards of a downslope; to my right, a hill that dropped 50 yards down. There was nowhere to go but backward. Would my brakes last? Would they help in the snow? Either way, I needed to get out of there. I needed to do it going backward and slow, slooooow. To further illustrate my situation and it’s seriousness, I did the entire hill in reverse with my driver’s side door open, left foot outside. If I lost control and was in serious danger, my intention was to yank the emergency brake and bail. I’d rather have my leg run over and be out of the car then going down a hill inside the car. I saw, at the time, the odds of me ditching my car in the middle of Vermont at about 50%. Thankfully, I made it down the hill. But it was terrifying.
I thought of this yesterday as I navigated my car home from Hill Farmstead. I began to think that maybe this tiny element of fear was a good thing. Maybe we need it in our lives. We spend so much time encouraging people to be safe. Paradoxically, we want people to step outside their comfort zone, but have made it harder to do so. We talk about ships in the harbor, but they were meant to sail, all those platitudes, but how often to people really take risks anymore where an outcome is unclear? How many people actually quit their jobs to pursue a dream, take off on a cross-country trip without a map or clear destination?
Fear can be a good thing. It heightens the senses, reminds us of what it feels like to be alive. It didn’t matter that I was driving a small car or a big car (though I would’ve felt a bit safer in the latter). It mattered that I was in a situation where the odds on something going awry was vastly greater. And I do believe it’s experiences like these that give us a better sense of what we can accomplish, how incredibly resilient we are in spirit. Was I scared? Sure, but I also gained another small dose of confidence. When we talk of mindfulness, this is what we should be talking about.
I advocate for bringing a little bit of fear back into our lives. I’m not talking about doing things that are intentionally reckless, or putting yourself into dangerous situations. I guess what I mean is that it’s okay to include an element of the unknown, to test ourselves every once in a while. I wasn’t totally safe yesterday (and, I guess, we never are on the road) and I was faced with performing tasks that included a hefty amount of mental stability and stamina, acute awareness of mind, body, and mechanical performance. I am fortunate to come out unscathed, and I do realize that yesterday’s experience wasn’t as bad as my previous trip to Hill Farmstead, nor was that trip the most dangerous trip anyone has ever taken.
It’s small doses of fear that are good for us. I won’t be swimming with sharks or jumping out of planes. But I do have a strange confidence that, faced with harsh conditions, reduced levels of safety, and their ilk, I have the mental and physical ability to overcome. We spend so much time trying to reduce our time spent with our adrenaline pumping, our senses on high alert. I think it’s worth it to test ourselves some times.
I found myself on Google Earth the other day, as I am wont to do on occasion. From this app on my iPad, I search places I’ve been, roads I’ve traveled. I do this for fun, wandering through streets or neighborhoods that I spent significant time in. Sometimes, I’ll go home, to my childhood street. A Google car, equipped with a 360 degree camera, has driven down and documented my little neighborhood, the streets on which I rode my bike, played baseball, basketball, football, street hockey. From the street view, I can see the houses of neighbors, some who still live there, some of whom have passed away or moved. The memories come flooding back.
My wife and I live at the end of a street that was never finished, and probably never will be. Essentially, we’re on the end of a dead end. There is just one other house accessible on our street, meaning our traffic is reduced to our two families, an occasional delivery of fast food or oil, a visitor. Once a month or so, someone will mistakenly come down our road and turn around in either driveway. This choice of residence was intentional.
We looked at many houses during the home search. Some of them we liked, some of them we didn’t even get out of the car during the open house. We knew what we were looking for, and, sparing the banal details, found what was the perfect home where we did: quiet, residential, a lot of land, not too much traffic. The choice was intentional for those reasons, but it feeds into the greater reason: it’d be a great neighborhood in which to raise children.
When I was looking through the street view of my old neighborhood, the memories struck a somber note. It made me, in a way, sad. I miss that house, my parents having since divorced and moving out. When we moved my mother out, it was a solemn occasion, but, at the time, there wasn’t a moment to have this reflection. Sure, there was a bit of nostalgia, but two things precluded our ability to really partake in the reflection that we probably all needed for closure. One, we were probably a little angry and hurt at the situation that took place between my parents, a trying and frustrating few years of which I will spare the details. The end of my parents marriage came quickly, mysteriously and with little resolution in regard to answers and clarity. This festering wound was open still, pulsing red and raw, when we moved all of the possessions from our parents old house into either our cars or the dumpster. Two – and this is personal, exclusive to me – my life was just beginning, really. I’d met my future wife, we’d begun to get serious, her spending most of her time at the one-bedroom apartment I was renting. The future – my life – was happening. And, as the sole resident of my parents home when the divorce was looming, in the midst and height of the unhappiness, I was happy, finally, to be separated from the unhappiness and posited within my own optimistic world.
My parents house would have, in another life, provided the sense of home for me, especially around the holidays, which I generally share with my wife at her parents’ home. I think about what it would be like to go home again, in the literal sense. We try to recreate these things, and when I told my wife recently that, if it were on the market when we were buying, I would have thought seriously about purchasing the home in which I grew up.
This is false, though. We can’t recreate the happiness of the past and, while I loved the neighborhood in which I grew up, the woods and the river running behind the property, I wouldn’t be able to recreate the world in which I lived during those years. And that’s what I would have been doing. I would have also been reminded of the bad times, years that I wouldn’t want to relive simply by occupying those walls again. But, when I think of home, I think about that street, and how, in a way, I feel it was unfairly stripped of a place to retreat to when it was needed most.
When we talk about home, we usually talk of a literal place with a connotation of wistfulness and memory. We can close our eyes and walk into the front (or, in my case, back) door and smell the smells, hear the sounds. There’s the old countertop, the kitchen table. There’s this person’s bedroom, there’s my bedroom. There are memories, good and bad, a celebration or argument, both monumentally important at the time, but, in the end, just a reminder of a different time, when importance was placed elsewhere, somewhere much more foreign than it’s placed now.
A home is the product of longevity, but I’m sure that even people who moved constantly hold onto that one constant, that neighborhood or collection of people that surrounded us, that connects us to the connotative “home.” Home is more than location. It’s a place in our minds that we can go back to, all the time, despite even the most negative of connotations. There’s a nostalgia connecting us to that place, making even an inch of what we know as home being a place we can recite with ease. It’s more than love, given and received.
We were allowed a freedom on my street, and maybe that era is passé, but I hope it’s not. We operated under the watchful eye of doting neighbors, we played with their children, we knew everyone by name. We knew which houses to avoid, with their deathtraps of mean dogs or crotchety old widows; We knew which houses gave out the best candy at Halloween. We knew the best hiding spots for hide-and-seek in the dark; We shared a camaraderie with our neighborhood that could never be quantified. There are millions of Americans who can say the same thing.
It makes me sad that I can’t go back to my childhood home. This will ultimately sound trite because there are losses far greater than a childhood home, but, in the season of reflection, I think of how I’d like to walk into the warm embrace of a familiarity known only to a handful of people just one last time. The Christmas parties at my parent’s house were always the best party of the year.
But in the lessons I’ve learned in these year, by the realization that we can never go back, I have a stronger desire to make our home, on the end of our little street, that place for my family. A place that connects sentiments to location, a connection made through both good times and bad times.
More than anything, though, I hope I can create a childhood, a life, a home that can survive any argument, fight, or calamity and be the place my (eventual) children will want to retreat to – whether literally or figuratively – both in happiness and sadness for the rest of their lives.
I would love to hear: what’s “home” for you? Why?
The holiday season gets tough, not from a writing standpoint, but a posting standpoint. I’m continually writing, but more on larger projects than anything else. While some people might love the posts that express “99 Things I’m Thankful for this Holiday Season” or “The 25 Best Books/Beers/Movies/Things I Did This Year,” I can’t bring myself to do these things. It’s not that I do not appreciate people’s taste or recommendations or stories about salvation or humor in front of a plate of turkey and stuffing, I promise. I just find the banal creation of lists to be something I don’t want to do for this particular site.
The writing life has been treating me well and I’ve been fortunate to sell a story and make some good contacts heading into the holiday season and the new year. And I’ve imposed some strict deadlines for myself for the upcoming year. I’ve had the seeds of a novel in me for a long time. Thus, I’ve been working diligently on a story that’s beginning to take shape. I do realize that I know very little about the process of writing a novel in regard to structure, narrative sequencing, and other big jargon-y phrases. I do believe, though, that this ignorance is a good thing. I’ve got a good chunk of a story told, but there’s a long way to go. I’ve changed plot points, perspectives, turned assholes into good people (and vice versa). It’s going well, if at times it can be frustrating and difficult and soul-crushing.
So, that’s what I’m looking to do for now. When inspiration hits me, or when fiction hits a road block (hopefully a temporary one), I’m going to share these thoughts and words the way I have been. And it’s probably going to be more often that it sounds. I try to bring you my perspectives on many of the topics I find interesting and truly hope you enjoy them. This is a forum for my thoughts, mostly, and a collection of writing that I can one day use in some yet-to-be-determined way. I want, also, to include pictures.
Happy Monday everyone.