November 12, 2009

Formative Moments

I sometimes wonder about the formative experiences of a writer. Those experiences that give a person the balance of hubris and doubt necessary to persist long enough to create art. It’s a very complex thing, and there are tantalizing details.

For example, the summer I was five I often wore a bright red fuzzy minidress with fringe, but no socks and shoes. I think it was actually my mom’s sheath shirt with no sleeves. I loved it and wouldn’t take it off for days. Imagine it on a skinny knock-kneed girl with long uncombed dirty blonde hair—like something by Dorothea Lange. That summer, like many summers, my dad irrigated on a Honda motorcycle with the shovel stuck in the back like a flagpole. (This is the same motorbike, after it gave up the ghost, that I rehabilitated in high school shop class, before someone stole the key and I couldn’t start it.).

I was wearing that dress the bright midsummer afternoon I hopped on the back of Dad’s bike to go home. I don’t remember it, but I imagine I begged Dad to ride with him. We were driving down a dirt road between irrigated fields, and the road had a huge washout down the middle where the ditch had overflowed. The road was essentially a ditch over which cars straddled. Dad drove along the top right side of the road, but it gave way and the bike collapsed to the left off into the middle ditch part. Dad straddled, trying to keep the bike upright—unsuccessfully, as it turns out, because the left bank was too far away. My leg was underneath the bike, and my calf was in contact with the hot tailpipe, so I ended up with a broken leg and a burn the size of a pancake on my inner calf. To this day, I have a faded bumpy patch there.

We waited until my sister drove up with the truck and I rode home with her. I remember the panic in my parents’ voices and the pain. It was decided to take me the 25 miles/45 minutes into town. Dad drove, I was in the middle, and my sister sat by the door. If I was five, this sister would have been about 22 and in college. I’m sure I was crying and carrying on, a pretty pitiful sight.

My sister told me the story of the seven princesses who wore out their shoes every night. You know the one: Every night the seven princesses wore out their shoes, and the king could not figure out why. So he said that whoever could find out would get to marry the princess of his choice. Many princes tried but fell asleep to beautiful music and therefore failed. They were put to death. Finally, a handsome young prince had the presence of mind to stuff his ears with wool and stayed awake long enough to find out that the seven princesses went dancing every night at a magical place and that was why their shoes were worn. He told the king and got to marry the youngest and most beautiful of all.

I was enraptured, swept away, taken out of myself. I remember after the story coming back into myself and awareness of the pain, though it was largely gone. I was amazed. I understood that it had made me forget my pain, and I think I kept repeating, “I forgot it hurt!” trying to make my sister and dad understand the miracle of it.

I think all writers have stories like this. Formative moments that really stick in their memories. Certainly the reasons I’m a writer are more complicated and go much deeper than this, but this memory is one that I cherish, strangely enough. A defining moment.

What I’m Reading Today: Janet Burroway’s "Best Advice" on Narrative. Struck a cord. Made me both hopeful and morose.

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