This past week was one of those times when communicating anything to do with my writing felt selfish and small. With bombs going off and refugees fleeing and people on social media acting frustratingly unkind, my fingers froze at sharing a Facebook post about “Grrrrr, misplaced commas!” or tweeting about how cranky I felt at the conclusion of the writing retreat I had just returned from because all I had done was move sentences around the page but had accomplished nothing with my revision.
Then, the day after the writing retreat, my dad called to tell me of the death of a cousin. Every rung on my childhood ladder included my cousin. Our lives were entwined because our fathers were not only brothers, but best friends. Our mothers were best friends. And my brother was my cousin’s best friend. I was the pesky younger sister and cousin, the third wheel who hung around and followed behind when they wanted to run amuck — without me tagging along — in the varied apartment complexes and woods that we inhabited back then. Hormones and high school and other events followed, leaving us all a bit scattered in the wind. One by one, we fell out of touch, only hearing of each other’s life statuses through the Telephone game.
After the call from my dad, I didn’t want to write. I didn’t want to talk about writing. I didn’t want to be around writers because all I could think was, what is the point of all of this writing? This wandering imagination that doesn’t pay the bills. This plotting that does not solve serious world issues or even small ones. These elaborate histories and personality traits for people who don’t exist and the occasional ignoring of people who do so that I can reach my word counts and hit my deadlines. All I could think about was that kid I had known. All I felt was sadness.
At the writing retreat, we had analyzed a series of scenes from published novels to determine what makes them powerful. We talked about the Turning Point, the point at which a character walks through a door of no return. The point where a bell cannot be un-rung. Every action that follows is a direct outcome of the character walking through that door. I struggled with finding the turning points in the handouts provided as homework because I’m a terrible student and a slow learner. But the learning came easily to me when I learned of my cousin’s death. A significant loss early in his life had led to significant life-altering actions from which he couldn’t come back.
I saw him a few years ago while visiting my dad. Our shared last name was emblazoned in that familiar script on his throat, the black ink ending at his prominent Adam’s apple. The angles of his face were hard, but handsome. He looked like his father. And when he smiled and we talked, that sweet kid was still there. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask him about certain subjects that he knew a lot about, insider knowledge — great novel research for me, I thought then and recall with shame now. But I didn’t ask. I’m glad for that. But I wish that I had talked to him a bit longer about his life before he took off down the drive that day. I wish that I had told him how much one small act of kindness on his part the first day of high school had meant to me, one of several kindnesses and moments that led to my own turning point: choosing to leave my home state for Boston, without a job and with only $500 to my name.
Those other moments came from books that I had consumed in the quiet days and weeks when I waited to find new friends after moving to a new place and going to a new school year after year. The Boxcar Children, when I felt like an orphan, alone at night, while my mother stayed out late at the bar. The Pinballs, the junior high years when I bounced from parent to parent, trying to figure out which place felt more like home. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, when I learned that a young girl from Stamps, who had been through worse than I could ever complain of, not only made it out of Arkansas, but had thrived. The Awakening, which taught me twice about settling.
Without these books and so many others that showed me a world beyond the one I knew, I don’t know that I would have ever left. And I don’t have to think hard about what my life would have been like if I had stayed.
The words and emotions and escape on those pages, more than anything or anyone else, kept me afloat during times when I struggled with loneliness and depression. I don’t wonder that my voracious reading, and then the poems that I began to write, were turning points for me. I do wonder about what would have happened if my cousin had seen himself or his own experience reflected back to him in books or some other narrative, or if he’d been able to escape into fictional worlds the way that I had, if he would have had a different turning point, one with a different ending. Maybe. Maybe not.
Perhaps it’s simplistic to believe that the right book at the right time could have rerouted his life as well. My cousin was a tragic character, like so many of the beloved characters in my books, but one that I always rooted for. They, like him, are neither all good or all bad, and sometimes they exasperate me. I wish a happy ending for them, even though it’s clear from page one that the road will be rough and the odds will be long.
With all the hurt and horror in the world, both abroad and nearby, I force myself to remember that the words I struggle with and feel pointless writing were probably a struggle in pointlessness to the writers whose books meant so much to me during difficult times. Perhaps they also questioned the reasoning behind all this writing. Perhaps their worlds and their words also felt small and selfish to them. But they kept writing.