Sunday, January 7, 2018

Pursued by a Book

The picture on the magazine page looked like snowy TV static. Beads of sweat formed on my brow as I stared at the pattern. You remember Magic Eye 3D pictures, right? If you focused your eyes past the image on the page, a hidden three-dimensional shape was supposed to reveal itself: a sailboat or palm trees or winged birds in flight.

These 3D pictures were all the rage in the early ‘90s. Newspapers featured them in the Sunday funnies. They showed up as plot elements on TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends. Three different Magic Eye books spent a total of 73 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. Even the gentlemen’s magazines were getting in on it.

This may have partially explained the beads of sweat as I sat in my studio apartment, the summer of ’92 at age 31, trying to defocus my eyes on a magazine page with the banner:

“HEY! This page has bodacious 3-D Ta-Tas.”

After 10 or 15 minutes of crossing my eyes and moving the

page back and forth, I couldn’t see anything but what looked like a close-up of beach sand.

There’s a metaphor at work with these 3D pictures. I think it’s this: Something real and substantial hides behind – or within – what appears to be nothing but random chaos. You can perceive that hidden dimension, but you have to change your perspective. You have to change something in your consciousness. My understanding of this “Magic Eye Metaphor” was not to come until later. Right now, all I wanted was to see 3D ta-tas. But I was getting nothing but static.

“This thing is defective,” I muttered, and tossed the magazine in the trash. I grabbed my duffel and headed out for the three-hour drive to our family cabin in southern Michigan.

By the time I passed Benton Harbor, I was bored with the music. I flipped the radio off and rolled the windows down. I could say that “I started thinking about writing,” but in truth I was always thinking about writing. I was the kid who’d get immersed in a book – Hardy Boys, The Boxcar Children, Lord of the Rings, Richard Bach seagull stuff, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, John Irving. When I read, I’d feel the room melt away. I loved stories.

And I loved reading what writers had to say about writing. The act of creating a person or a world. Or having a person arrive and start speaking, and you jump in the sidecar and go along for the ride and write down whatever you hear. It seemed like magic. I’d been thinking for a while: “I could do that. I write pretty good. I should start something. See if I can finish it.”

The July air was warm though the car window and it smelled clean and I was alone and driving north. I’ve got stories, I thought. What’s a good one? What’s a story I could tell?

Many years later, Elizabeth Gilbert would write in her book Big Magic:

“…chills ran up my arms. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy. I felt like I was falling in love, or had just heard alarming news, or was looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing, but dangerous. This is what it feels like when an idea comes to you.”

I had an idea. It was the story of being a young Marine in West Africa ten years earlier. A story about a failure of courage, and the shame and regret that followed. I felt a little dizzy. I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff. I was still twenty miles from my dad’s cabin and I stomped on the gas. I floored it.

Half an hour later, on the last half-mile of packed dirt roads winding through the wooded dunes along Lake Michigan, I pulled up to the cabin. Nobody there. It was early afternoon, and I figured my brothers and sisters would still be at the Brandywine or Clubhouse Beach. My dad was probably smacking a ball around at the tennis courts.

The idea: a crowd forms around a mortally wounded Cameroonian lying on the street, under the bumper of a cement truck. A 19-year-old American me sees it and must decide what to do. The idea lit up my chakras. I had to tell it. I had to write it.

I climbed out of the car and felt I was carrying the idea like an ember glowing in a nest of dry grass, blowing on it to keep it going while I looked for kindling. The sun filtered through the burr oaks and mottled the log walls of the cabin. I walked fast and dropped my duffel in the great room.

My immediate problem: No pen, no pencil, no paper. I blew on the ember to keep it hot while I looked around for something to write on. Maybe in my dad’s room. I went in and had a look around. On top of his gym bag, I saw something that first surprised, and then confused me. It was a book. I picked it up and looked at the cover:

If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland

The book surprised me. I thought, “’If you want to write?’ Well. . . yeah, that’s why I’m in here rummaging through my dad’s stuff.”

And I was confused. It wasn’t unusual to see my dad with a book, but he read spy novels. Robert Ludlum, Alistair MacLean, John le Carré, Ian Fleming. What was he doing with a book about writing and art and spirit? This wasn’t his genre. Something didn’t fit.

Something else was curious, and familiar. The cover of this book had a border that looked like. . . what? It looked like a beach sand. It looked like TV static. Where have I seen that? I had an itch at the back of my neck.

I set the Ueland book to one side, found a pen and some loose paper, and started writing. (Two months later, that story appeared in an IndyStar column called “Life Lines,” and ended up being the first piece of writing I was ever paid for. The editor gave it a title, “Ex-Marine Regrets Heeding His Training.”)

But wait. We’re not done here yet.

My dad got back from the tennis courts. “Oh, hey,” he said. “You been here long?”

“About an hour,” I said. “Listen. . . and sorry, I was in your room looking for something to write on. I saw this on top of your bag.” I picked up the Ueland book. “Can you tell about me it? It doesn’t look like the kind of thing you usually read.”

“That? Well, I’ve been thinking about doing some writing after I retire. You know, funny stories about things that happened at the plant. Union-management disagreements. That kind of thing.”

“Okay,” I said, something still bugging me about the snowy pattern on the book cover. “Why this book, in particular?”

He told a curious story of his quest to get his hands on this book. Several months ago, he said, he’d seen a review of Ueland’s book, first published in 1938, and thought it sounded good. He called the Castleton Borders to see if they had a copy. They looked it up and told him, sorry, it’s out of print. He protested, saying he’d just read a book review and why would a national magazine do a review of an out-of-print book? Look again, please.

Maybe they searched the wrong title the first time, maybe it was under a different SKU, but they found a copy in their system. We’ll order you one, they said.

Three weeks later, my dad called for an update. Looks like it came in, but umm, we seem to have lost it. We’re so sorry, but we’ll order you another copy. After a five-week effort, my dad finally had his copy of If You Want to Write. Good story, Dad. Glad you stuck with it.

Over that weekend, I spent some time in Ueland’s book as I worked on my story of a young Marine who’d failed a test of courage.

When I got home on Monday, I called Borders and asked if they had any copies of If You Want to Write on the shelves. After a few minutes on hold, the nice lady said, “Yes, we have one copy.” I drove over there, paid for my book, and took it home to read.

I kicked up my feet, opened the book, and found a blue note card, three inches square, stuck between the pages. I set it to one side, giving only passing notice to the writing at the top of the card:

Date of Request: 3-15-92

I read on. In her forward, Brenda Ueland wrote that G.P. Putnam’s Sons had originally published the book under the title, Help from the Nine Muses. She said that her old friend Carl Sandburg, on reviewing an early draft, had said to her, “That is the best book ever written about how to write.”

The back of my neck was itching. I looked over to the little blue card I’d placed on the side table. Date of what request? I never requested anything. I picked it up to look at the date, and then turned it over to read the other side.

Customer’s last name: Jansen

Yes, I called Borders to see if this book was on the shelf. But they never asked my name and I never told them. The next line read:

Customer’s phone number: 841-5555

The itch at the back of my neck turned to sparks. That’s my

DAD’s phone number, I thought. This was the book that he was told didn’t exist. This was the book that had been ordered for him and was then inexplicably lost. This book was the one he had pursued but which had eluded him.

I looked again at the snowy, TV-static border around the

book’s front cover. I went to my desk and fished the men’s magazine out of the trash. I flipped through it, tore out page 65, and laid it alongside the book cover. The patterns were nearly identical. 

In his 1951 book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition,
mountaineer WH Murray wrote:
“Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”

At the moment the story idea was giving me the dizzy feeling of falling, the moment I actually committed and decided, “I’m going to stop thinking about writing and talking about writing and JUST WRITE this one story,” then Providence moved too. I wanted to write and was seeking a pencil and instead found this book entitled, If You Want to Write.

I thought that perhaps the snowy pattern of the hidden 3D ta-tas may have foreshadowed the book I’d find a few hours later. And the book that eventually came into my hands seemed to have purposefully juked and sidestepped to stay out of my father’s hands, to land in my own.

We often go searching to find a particular book. Sometimes, the tables are turned and Providence moves and all manner of unforeseen assistance is raised, and we find that a book, just maybe, was seeking us.

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