Tuesday, May 6, 2014

This Notebook Will Save Your Life

There was a point, a long time ago, when I had no idea what I would do with my life, but I was writing stories.  The urge was insistent, always bubbling underneath whatever was happening.  And little did I know, I was preparing for a future I had yet to imagine.  I was improving my writing skills, and I did not know it.

I worked in a parts warehouse for an aerospace firm, a job I got through connections.  We were all college kids trying to earn money for tuition, for a beat-up first car, to try to get out of whatever hell we were trapped in.  The job was easy and paid well.  For four to six hours a day, we pulled parts—washers, nuts, small diodes and circuit boards—which would be packaged into kits and sent to another area of the plant to be assembled into cockpit displays in fighter jets, or radar consoles on a Navy ship.  We had no idea where those tiny bolts and grommets and electrical detritus were headed, or what they would become, but the job involved a lot of counting and monotonous work, but the hours could be managed with classes, so it was fine.  Unbeknownst to us, we were assembling our future lives while assembling parts for something far more powerful.  Weapons of war.  Instruments of destruction.

We had to package up the disparate parts in a box, check the list to make sure everything was there, and then place it on a conveyor belt to be pushed down to the shipping area to be padded and taped up and labeled:  a complete kit ready to be sent to wherever it was that they assembled those weapons of war.  Most days, the number of orders I had to fill was in the hundreds, but if I ran through them as fast as humanely possible, I could finish with time to spare, and then I could climb up into the rafters next to the arc of the roof and read or write in my notebook.

The warehouse containing all those college kids was like a living soap opera.  We dated each other, had crushes, double-timed, cheated, argued, loved, hated.  At break we regaled each other with horribly perverse stories, tales so raunchy that we laughed hard while fighting back the urge to projectile vomit.  Some Mondays we would arrive to find paper packing blankets spread in a sheltered area of the shipping bay surrounded by used condoms.  Some of the passion had boiled over into a tryst over the weekend.  We looked at each other suspiciously.  Who had left the evidence behind?  No one would fess.

I smuggled in notebooks so that I could scribble away in stolen moments.  At first, I wrote about my life, my hopes and dreams for the future, but when those idealized moments in the sun seemed too far away and even hopelessly impossible, I turned to the stories unfolding all around me.  I turned every worker into a character, and the workplace became the stage where I set my scene.  I sketched out hundreds of episodes or chapters.  I was heavily influenced by my television viewing:  Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.  My reading included copious amounts of Dickens’ dark Victorian stories in all their episodic glory.  It got so I could not wait to come to work to compose another few moments of my seemingly endless story.  Like real life in the warehouse, my characters fought, had sex, faced crises, worried about the future, and sometimes, they died.

Now, from the distance of years, I know what I was doing.  I was becoming a writer.  I was learning the craft of story from real life, and often, the reality of our existence was less believable than anything I could make up.  Truth really is stranger than fiction.  I was also improving as a storyteller.  There was a disconnect, however, between my college coursework and the writing I was doing—I saw no improvement in the classroom.  Writing academic papers did not get any easier.  There was no story to tell, in my immature mind, regarding the analysis of a poem.  After one particularly bad grade, I complained to my instructor, a man I much admired.  I bemoaned the fact that the school literary magazine had recently accepted one of my stories, yet I could not write a decent essay analyzing a poem to save my life.  He looked at me with sad eyes, knowing I just didn’t get it.  “Writing is writing,” he said.  “Just tell the story of your analysis.”  It took me awhile to wrap my brain around that concept.

Those moments years ago made me a writer, and they also made me a life-long lover of notebooks.  I keep one to this day, scribbling down notes, snippets of dialogue, potent images, special moments when planets seem to align and all is right with the universe, or when all seems dark and lost.  I never go anywhere without something to read and a notebook to write.  Standard equipment in my kit.

Over the years, moving from apartment to apartment to house to apartment, that story notebook of the warehouse world got lost.  We all grew up and went on with our lives.  Somewhere along the way, I decided stories are everywhere.  There are always more of them if you look.  And those early imaginings, although youthfully urgent and necessary to compose at the time, consisted of practice, of me learning to tell the tale.  Still, I wish I’d kept them.  They would probably be good for some laughs today.  My overwrought imagination of heated love affairs and unrequited angst.  Funny stuff, no doubt.

If you want to learn to write, practice it like a craft, because it is.  You can’t give someone something to say.  If you lack ideas, well, go and do something else with your life.  But if you are intrigued by story, hopelessly in love with arranging details on a page and bringing a world to life, then you can become better at writing with practice.  But you must write all the time, morning and night, rain and heat, through exhaustion and exhilaration.  Write like it is a drug habit you can’t kick, the monkey you can never get off your back.

I can’t stop, even when my mind tells me there is nothing there to bring out.  I know if I keep scratching my way across the page, something will come.  Ghosts will rise up.  I fill my notebooks, page after page.  The stories keep coming, and in their birth and fruition, they save the life of the writer.  The notebook, ready and willing to receive my words, saves my life.


  1. You're in touch with life man...and life is the brew of great stories. Any stories about our music?

  2. Thank you for this inspiring column. You make me want to write. You call to mind, with your description of college students and a dead end job, my own life & disaffection twenty-some years ago. That kind of environment can be a prolific breeding ground for writing. I need to write about some characters I hung with in my younger days.

  3. Inspiring column. Your descriptions evoke the disaffection & drama I knew in my college days. That kind of environment is a prolific breeding ground for writing. I need to write about some characters I hung out with in my younger days.


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