In the beginning, FAMILY is pretty much all we know.
While we’re infants, they’re perceived as an extension of us (in regards, mostly, to how they meet or neglect our basic, inherent needs).
Most of the early truths and discoveries we make are learned through our experiences with family. Our values, our beliefs and attitudes, are influenced by them (as we grow to accept or to resist theirs).
As we age, as we approach and then navigate the muddy waters of adolescence, our FRIENDS assume a much larger role in shaping us (or at least in influencing how we shape ourselves) into the people we’ll become.
All of this may be true. All of it may, and does, and will influence our stories.
But, as Willa Cather stated: “most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” I can say that most of my personal stories, most of the memories I draw upon when I write, are from that time in my life. They’re related to experiences I had with my family, and adventures I had with my friends back then.
A few of them, in particular, have in some way influenced the novels I’ve been working on recently, but not in the ways you might think. Not for the events themselves, in most cases, but for something more.
Here are a few specific events I recall from when I was between six and nine years old:
The Great Carpet Incident
Broken Bones & Concussed Noggins
Shattered: Or Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Wrong Body
The Land of Up & So Much Falling
Climbing the Walls
Rooftops & Hurricanes
THE GREAT CARPET INCIDENT
When I was about seven or eight years old, I made my first big blunder (i.e. I messed up big-time).
Sure, I was making mistakes a few dozen times a day – I was a curious, klutzy kid after all, but most of my “oh no, you didn’t” moments were the result of having a body that didn’t quite measure up during performance to the ambition or aim of the mind.
Other times, though, like The Great Carpet Incident, were mostly the result of a mind that was either missing entirely (evidence points strongly toward this theory) or that was locked in on one idea and, thus, completely oblivious to another idea (i.e. the more important one – the matter of life and death one).
One positive discovery to come out of the experience was the fact that I learned sometimes speed saves lives!
My parents had been saving money for years, scraping together a little here and there, putting it aside with the intention of buying new living room carpet (the one we had was, from what I surmise, rather unpleasant). As I mentioned before, my parents worked very hard and sacrificed a lot so that my sister and I wanted for nothing, though they also instilled in us the value of people and of love over material things and of living within our means, two values I’m extremely grateful for to this day.
It was summer. And I was high-octane.
I may have mentioned this before, but superglue, duct tape, a staple gun, none of these remarkable innovations were able to keep me in one place for longer than a few seconds. My hyper-drive is one of the reasons I never read until I was twenty-six.
Trouble was, I’m allergic to, well, pretty much every plant and animal in the solar system.
As a result, running around and playing in the backyard usually ended with me in a hospital bed. So, I learned to play in the street.
We lived on a corner, by the way, so when my mom said, “Go play in the intersection,” she wasn’t being mean. Okay, she never said that in real life. And the fact that she didn’t is a testament to her resolve and her love and her patience.
Of course, I tested all of that one hot, sunny, summer afternoon.
I had been playing in the street for hours (probably baseball or football with a friend, though I may have merely been chasing shadows and tossing the ball to myself that day, it’s all a blur, really, for many reasons).
Around here, the city crew spends summer days patching roads. Which, on this particular, sunshiny, hot, hazy day meant hundreds of splotches of melted, oozy, sticky tar up and down the street. Right there in the middle of my play area, it should be noted.
When you’re seven, a little tar is NOT going to slow you down.
But it SHOULD!
And this is one of those teachable moments, parents. If you have a kid, don’t assume he or she gets it on his/her own (okay, let’s face it, girls tend to pick up these sort of “rational” deductions a bit sooner than most, or some, or at least this one boy I know).
Memo to Kids: Don’t play in the tar!
It didn’t work for the dinosaurs and it doesn’t usually work for humans either.
This was a simple thing that could have been explained to me in the beginning (while I was being fed or burped or changed those thousands of times in early childhood). But, nooo, I had to learn it the hard way (not unlike those, now extinct, dinosaurs).
For some reason, I honestly have no idea why, I went searching for my mom. I needed to ask her a question. Probably something like, why is the sky blue while the trees are green, but the street I’ve been playing in is all black and sticky. Something profound like that.
All I know is I was on a mission to find my mom and to ask her a question upon which the rest of my life would hinge. Or, unhinge, as the case may be.
I went inside the house.
I called out, “Mom. Oh mooooom,” as I walked through the kitchen. “Mom are you there?” I walked through the dining room calling for her. I walked into the living room. “Mooom. Where are you?”
She appeared at the top of the stairs (first, all I saw were her feet, which would soon become forever etched into my memory as those fast furious feet).
I stopped at the foot of the stairs and looked up, about to launch into my question.
She stood at the top of the long staircase and looked down at me and said, “What do you–”
Her eyes darted to my right, to the vast open cavernous living room that was completely empty of any sign of life . . . except, that is, for a trail left by seven-year-old feet, a trail of black footprints, as if I had just emerged from the tar pits of old – a miracle, really, an authentic historical phenomenon for the ages.
The today me, the older me, would have tried to reason with her her about those very things, only back then I didn’t see it that way. Neither did she.
Did I mention that she had finally saved up the money, after all those years, and that she had only just had the brand new beige carpet installed a few weeks before that day?
So you can imagine the size of her eyes as they took in the scene, as they grew larger and rounder and full of something I hadn’t seen before.
You can imagine, perhaps, that even though I was apparently walking around with my very empty head literally attached to my body, despite being brainless when I entered the house, the sudden realization that my death was imminent got those synapses firing pretty frenetically.
I knew in that instant there was only one thing that would save me.
Back through the living room. Around the dining room table. Through the kitchen. Out the back door. All the way to the street at the end of the driveway.
Truth be told, this was a common strategy I had developed through countless hours of research (i.e. I had run for my life hundreds of times, though my life had never really been in danger – I don’t even remember my mom yelling at me very many times back then, except of course when my sister blamed me for things, but this moment was all on me).
In all the times I’d sprinted out of the house, I never needed to go past the driveway.
Usually mom would stand in the doorway and tell me I was in trouble and, you know, discuss the consequences from a safe distance.
But on that day, well, I got to the end of the driveway, started to put on the brakes, turning as I did to look over my shoulder, and there was my mom an arm’s length behind me (those arms, I should mention, were extended in perfect if-I-get-my-hands-on-you position).
This was when I learned I had a second gear.
I put on the afterburners. I took off down the street. And that petite, loving, compassionate, patient woman was right behind me . . . still.
I don’t remember if anyone was on their from porch, as was often the case, or how many pairs of eyes might have been looking out windows on that summer afternoon. I only remember running all the way down the street to the river, hundreds of yards away.
Lucky for me, all my time in hyper-drive paid off because my mom ran out of gas.
She doubled over at the top of the small hill, about halfway down the street. I stopped once I’d reached the river. I looked back to see her at the top of that hill which had figured into some of my favorite memories and which would later figure into one of my worst (post coming soon).
We exchanged ideas through a series of shouts as to how the rest of that little dance would play out.
Her idea was that I come home (yeah, right) and my idea was that I move somewhere far, far away (had I known then that Timbuktu was a real place, I may have pulled a Walter Mitty and things may have played out differently).
As it was, I eventually came around to her idea, but only after spending the next several hours by myself in the park up at the very top of one of the swings (literally on top of the thing – I had climbed it because I had learned UP was usually a safe place).
Now, UP happens to play a big part in Xero’s story. His favorite direction is UP.
The Great Carpet Incident was one of my earliest adventures. On the surface, at least, it might influence my current writing a little less than some of the other incidents, but had I been even a half-second slower that day I might not be around now to write novels.
Okay, I’m exaggerating, my life was never in danger! But, when you’re seven-years-old, you’re pretty sure, in that moment, that it is.
And that perspective, that literal life and death perception that kids often associate with significant events, has influenced my writing. Most of the characters I write about screw up in some way. They sometimes set out to do one thing and end up setting off a chain of events that forever changes their lives.
Xero is a perfect example of this. He just wants to be extraordinary at something. At anything. Only his attempt to do a thing that sets him apart backfires in ways he never imagined.
Next week, I’ll write a little about the other real life incidents mentioned above and how they’ve played a part in my writing.
Right now, though, let me just say, one thing is certain. If I didn’t have such a loving, selfless, supportive family (and such wonderful friends), I wouldn’t be doing this thing I love.
Of course, another thing is also certain, and this is especially true for kids, being active and fit and able to run lickety-split just might save your life one day. So keep your running shoes nearby.
And keep chasing your dreams. Keep after it!