Tuesday, February 2, 2010

There and Back Again: A Writer's Journey

I am far above the ground as I write this, high in the night sky over America. I have flown to New York, and now I fly back, soon to be home again. It has become a different trip than I imagined.

I flew with a purpose— to attend a conference of writers, hoping to meet and impress an agent or an editor with my work. New York was merely the place the conference was— nothing really more than that. Yet it seems I have traced a strange circle.

You see, I flew to New York for the first time twenty-five years ago. I was nineteen, and I was there to enjoy a week with my aunt and uncle in Manhattan, seeing the sites and incidentally (yet of very great interest to me at the time) purchasing my first “real” computer for my coming start to college.

As you might imagine, I fell in love with the city. As I looked around, it seem to thrive about me as no other place I had ever known. The city moved, a wondrous living thing, its eyes the millions of eyes with in it, its breath the whoosh of taxi cabs or the curl of steam rising from beneath the streets, its blood the silver subway cars endlessly thrust along the city's tunneled veins. I watched the people, moved with them, went where they went, rode what they rode. I saw museums and shops and shows, and pleasured in the last summer symphony, lying in the grass of Central Park as the music filtered through the warm night air. It seemed a magical, mystical place.

On that trip something else happened that I had not intended. I slept in a tiny extra bedroom in my aunt’s apartment. The room was barely larger than a long closet, but it had a desk along one wall next to a window. I set my new computer on that desk and learned to use it, sitting next to the open window, listening to the sounds of the city filtering in from the warm August nights. And I began to write.

I had written before, but never on a computer. Indeed, my interest in computers at that time was in programming them, preferably to create games. I had never really used a word processor. My new computer (the very first Macintosh) did not come with Basic (the only computer language I knew). But it did come with MacWrite. So I opened that program up to learn it, and to learn it, I began to write. What I wrote was a story— the start of a book, in fact. I would write it at night before bed, and I would write again in the morning when I woke. Writing became the buttons of my day.

When I returned home from New York, those buttons faded away. I had other needs for the computer— school papers, then a college bulletin board, and of course the inevitable games. The story languished and slipped onto floppy disks. I did not pick it up again.

It would be many years before I returned to that love of story, to let it lead my life more fully. Even now, as I seek to be the writer I set out to be, I have let other things slip in the way of it.

Yet in New York again, in that same room from so long ago, on those same streets and tunnels, I rediscovered story. I watched it happen around me, in the movement and sounds, in the faces of the people, in the delight of a young girl dancing about her father as she waited for the train to come and take them on some adventurous outing. Soon my mind was filling up with ideas and stories, and I pulled out a little notebook I carried and scratched down those ideas. Later I pulled out another notebook and wrote a little more, so that when the time was right I could return to those ideas and recall them from the moments of my memory. And one night I opened my computer in that same tiny room, and wrote.

I had come full circle.

I learned a lot at the conference, as I always do. But I learned more from the city, from being there again, steeped in people, surrounded by story. But as I left I learned something else— the story was never truly in the city or in the surroundings. It was always in me. I had merely forgotten it.

Now, as I finish this entry, I sit at home in front of another computer, descendant to that first one, in my own room, near my own window. And I know that it’s time to start a new circle, or rather to truly finish the one started on an August night so long ago. It is time to continue the story.

--- Howard Shirley