Arriving in the mail here in the Philippines -- alongside my brand-spanking new Ontario driver's license -- was a short story my mom found stuck in some box in the basement, a story I wrote around ten years ago and published, apparently, in a York University Fine Arts fanzine.
I say 'apparently' because I don't remember even writing this story, and I certainly don't recognize the rather strange illustrations that accompany the text. (I sure as hell didn't draw them, and whoever did was probably smoking crack. The bad crack, not the good crack.) It could have been for MyTake, the film department's magazine started up by my friend Eric and a few others, but why would they have stuck a short story in a cinema journal? There's no other pieces alongside my photocopied story, no masthead, no contributors list. As if it emerged in that box, whole and complete, waiting to be found.
Irregardless, here it is, my blast from the past.
I remember writing stuff back then and thinking: This will be interesting to read ten, twenty years from now -- a snapshot of who I was and what I was thinking. (Come to think of it, I still think like that.
It's not even really a narrative, actually; more of a character piece. About an old man who is going through his voluminous stack of diaries that he has faithfully recorded for the past fifty years. He finds an entry from his wedding night, at the age of twenty-two (older than I was when I wrote it). He is ecstatic. His life is all ahead of him. It can't get better than this, he thinks. And the old man, looking back at his younger self's words, agrees -- it didn't get better. That was the peak. After that, at some point in time, the old man's wife got sick, got cancer, died. And now he has all these empty days to look forward to. (The piece is called So Many Tomorrows, a title that literally makes me cringe -- but what the hell. If you can't be sophomoric when one is a sophomore, when can you, right?)
My younger self was right, too -- it is a snapshot of who I was and what I was thinking about.
Trying to turn my own rather mundane, ordinary Ontario upbringing into something simultaneously larger and smaller than itself. Remembering the details of who I was and where I came from and trying to elevate such observations into something universal. The story is set in Freemont, Ontario, a fictional town that later served as the centrepiece of a series of linked short-stories I wrote. (I even sent them out to a few publishers, receiving a few letters that said, essentially: "Um, no.") Based on St.Catharines, Fort Erie, and Manotick, all Ontario towns and cities, it was my own attempt to fuse various writers' styles -- namely, Ross Lockridge, Jr., Don Robertson, Alice Munro, and, especially, Sherwood Anderson -- with my own clumsy attempts at encapsulating all that I knew and thought and believed about small-town life. Various St.Catharines stores and street names pop up. I can see which authors' styles I was swiping from. I can sense what I was trying to do, even if I don't think I pulled it off.
Looking at it objectively, the piece is pretty terrible: overdone, maudlin, emotional. I like the writing itself -- the pacing, the rhythm -- but nothing happens, and what does happen dwells in its own moroseness.
But I have to say.
It feels like it was written by an old soul. What was a twenty-one year old kid doing writing about an old man who's looking back, dejected and defeated, at the best years of his life? What did I know about sickness, or disease, or death?
As I said, I have no recollection of writing it, so reading that his wife died of cancer, that he kissed her 'shaved head', kind of threw me for a loop.
I've had plenty of experience with cancer in the last year-and-a-half, something I'm sure I never, ever would have imagined back in 1996. (Where I did get the idea that people with cancer shaved their heads? Was I that naive? Didn't I know that the hair fell out from the chemo? Maybe not. Disease was a story-tool, not a reality.)
Eerie, a little bit. Reading that piece. An old man looks back on his life and his wife with cancer, realizing, now, that there's nothing left for him anymore. And here I am, having now actually experienced what that twenty-one year old kid was simply using as ingredients for what he thought would make an interesting, emotional story.
I can see now that I was trying to write about that which I did not know. Aging, grief, the remembrance of youth past. I had experienced none of that. I was trying to be a fiction writer. I was trying to imagine everything. I couldn't have imagined that even life sometimes outdoes and one-ups one's own imagination.
And here, in this story, the old man is wondering what he would tell his younger self. And here I am -- not old, no, but older -- wondering what I would say to my younger self, the one who wrote the story about the older man talking to the younger man.
Weird, weird, weird.
Boxes within boxes. Characters within characters. Myself, inhabiting each.
Writing is a window into another world, but, for the writer, reading one's own work is also a glimpse into one's self -- another self, a younger self. "Oh, that's what I was thinking about," we say. On one level we're looking at the technical craft of what we were trying to accomplish; on another level, a deeper level, the place where the writing begins, where the emotion orginates, we're recollecting all that was inside of us, and what we were trying to say, and why.
Reading is all about and always about getting inside somebody else's head in the hope of understanding what's going on inside of your own. Reading one's own writing is akin to delving inside of your own head, refracted and removed by distance, time, maturity.
I actually haven't read the whole piece straight through. I've looked at bits and pieces, in and out of order. Read some passages here and there. It's only four, five pages long, but there's a lot of stuff lurking between those lines, and I'll save them for another tomorrow.