A writer finds peace in the process of constructing his own narrative.
I am a writer; that’s what I do, as they say, “for a living.”
It’s also the way I relate to the world. Just as civil engineers look at bridges with an eye toward spans, trusses and beams, I’m always looking at the structure of stories in terms of their building blocks: exposition, rising action, climax and dénouement—all those things you learned in high school English.
These are relatively easy things to spot when you’re the listener, when the story is not your own, when it’s not about you, but it’s really tough when it’s the story of your life. Standing inside it, the sweep and arc of your own story looks too impossibly complicated to see the patterns that others do.
And so the book I began four years ago, a scholarly book about the changing role of the artist in American culture, is still not quite finished, because it has become about me, my life as an artist. It’s gotten to be so much about me that the only word for it is the dreaded “m-word”—a memoir.
I used to think that my life was not interesting enough to write a memoir—and it’s not, really. But one thing that I’ve discovered through the tough, sometimes painful, work of looking at my story is that it’s not just my story. It’s also my grandfather’s and my father’s and my mother’s.
That my story is also theirs is not so hard to comprehend, I know. Without my grandparents I would have no parents, and thus no me. But what I mean is that they all had an unwitting hand in making me a writer.
My late grandfather, my dad’s dad, worked for the railroad his entire life, but in his spare time he read literature and history and even took a correspondence course on how to become a novelist. My grandmother gave me a short story he wrote that she found among some of his old papers. It’s quite good.
My dad, who just retired after 40 years on the railroad, has always loved books, so much so that in the late ’70s he engineered an enormous and complicated bookcase out of walnut to house his large collection, a bookcase that has only become more crammed over the years. When I think of our house and what distinguishes it from others, the bookcase and its eclectic mix of books is what first springs to mind.
To me, that bookcase is the soul of the house, as it contains not just beautifully bound editions of Melville and Dickens, but family photo albums spanning three generations, high school and college yearbooks, and little knick-knacks my mother compulsively bought over the years.
In fact, it is my mother’s presence in my story that has given me the most trouble. She died more than a year ago after a decade-long battle with cancer, so she was sick when I began work on the book. At first, I was able to keep her illness in the background. It had nothing to do with the story I was telling—a story about the pitfalls of becoming an artist.
And then something strange happened. Sitting in the waiting room of the surgery wing of the Cleveland Clinic while my mother underwent a procedure to remove a brain tumor, a string duet began to play. Two musicians from the Cleveland Symphony had come in to play and take visitors’ minds off the stress pressing down on them.
Like in all the best-wrought stories, the elements of this moment triggered an epiphany. My mother, who was a home-ec major in college and later a ceramicist who taught art classes at the community college, had encouraged me to take summer art classes, paid for private trombone lessons and driven hours to see me read from my first published short story. She would have loved to have heard this duet.
This was, and still is, an emotionally taxing moment for me, but I am astonished to realize that the process of trying to write about it—reconstructing the scene out of fluttering bits of sensory detail—taught me to see more like my father, my grandfather, my uncle and even my brother, now also a railroad man.
Of course I’m not seeing beams and trusses, but the motifs and themes that give meaning to the sequence of events that have linked-up to describe the narrative arc of my 35 years.
What I am finding standing outside my life like this, like the George Baileys and the Scrooges and Dantes before me, those protagonists magically transported above (or below) the mess and muddle of their lives, is that the sweet music of the duet was casting its own spell over me; that it was lifting me out of that terrible moment.
So I am seeing myself as a protagonist who has had to overcome obstacles of increasing size and intensity in anticipation of a climax, a point after which nothing can be the same again.
But the climax is more than just the event that changes everything, as the death of a parent always is. In the best stories, the climax is followed by the dénouement which, roughly translated, means “untying the knot,” the period during which the tension slackens and peace gently descends.
It would be some time before I could fully see where the upsweep of these perceptions and feelings were leading me, but I know now—writing this—that sitting there in that waiting room listening to the string duet, the briefest strains of peace were gathering in my ear.