Someone once asked why I write, and a satisfying answer was at first elusive. My gut responses were disconcertingly utilitarian.
“I write for work,” I stammered. “I write for fun.”
Eventually, I found an answer I liked. “I write because I want to,” I said. “I’ve written for almost as long as I can remember.”
I remember in second grade walking home for lunch, icicles hanging from my nostrils in the frigid Wisconsin winter. I would sit at the kitchen table with my mom. A steaming bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup rested in front of me, and the gooey-good aroma of grilled cheese filled the house.
After eating, Mom would prompt and I’d compose. “A little cat sat,” she said.
“In the garden out back,” I answered.
In sixth grade, I dictated a short story about a voyage to Pluto as Mom plucked away on Dad’s old college typewriter, a manual Smith Corona with the sleek design of Mid-century Modernism. And in ninth grade, reading over a short story for a contest, Mom suggested revisions, still encouraging and prompting all those years later.
These days, Mom doesn’t advise and consult as much. She’s still great at catching typos and grammatical errors, but her memory isn’t what it used to be. She finds following the arc of a story increasingly difficult. It might be Alzheimer’s, but we’ll have to wait and see, the doctors advise.
I wrote “The Gardener” for Mom. I wanted to explore the fragile nature of memory and friendship in the midst of a possibly devastating disease and the potential loss of self.
“The Gardener” is the story of an older woman, Grace, and a young man, William. He keeps mostly to himself until he meets Grace in front their condo building, at the rocky outcrop where the condo driveway meets the street. Grace, whose memory is flagging, has been planting flowers. But someone keeps ripping her plants, her “babies,” from their beds. When William comes to Grace’s aid, something deeper takes root. In Grace’s words, “A flower can change the world.” And it does.
This story changed my life, too. Neither the story nor the characters are much like Mom and me. But in writing it, I found some comfort and solace. Memories are born every moment. Even when they’re ripped away from one person, they’re being planted with someone else. I wrote “The Gardener” to make memories. It’s what gardeners do.
“Police Station” was difficult to write because I had to go deep within and recall an event when I was nine years old, many years after it happened. I was in the midst of writing a memoir about my racial identity, religious background, and adoption. This involved finding out who my birth parents were, and whether my race was Negro or white.
I began writing about 35 years ago when “home” was an eight-by-ten-foot room at the Empire Hotel, across from Lincoln Center. I shared the hall shower with the drunks, the despondent, the discarded elderly, and a host of others like me, who had not as yet, and maybe never would, find their definition.
But I wrote a lot, and as my writings expanded into a pile of papers over two feet high, and my appetite for reading continued, I developed a love affair with dictionaries, the sound and meanings of words. I decided to enroll at Columbia University in a creative writing course.
Immediate shock. Writing in private was one thing. Sitting with editors, published writers, and poets slammed my pen into muteness. Our class met one night a week, and for six weeks I heard Peter Rand, our teacher, ask, “Ben, did you bring anything?” And I heard my constant reply, “No . . . I . . . I . . . ” Then the professor would pass me by and go on to another student.
In therapy, and at home on the pages of my private writings, it was safe to go back to my childhood, my teenage years, and deal with perceptions and feelings. But I wondered if I was feeling not some call to writing stirring within me, but a desperation to physically return to an adolescent period and do it all over again.
The seventh week of class was my debut as a writer, a sweating, stammering reading of a self-expression piece that had poured forth at home but suffered self-conscious strangulation as I read it in that classroom.
For the second semester I was awarded a Woolrich Scholarship in Creative Writing from Columbia University. The first few weeks of class were similar to the previous semester: bringing in writing to read and hearing comments and criticism from the professor and fellow students. Then one evening the professor gave an assignment. “Write something you feel no one else in the class has experienced.”
Within me perspiration formed, cold on the outside, wet and flowing on the inside like a heated stream. Did he know? Of course not. I had not yet brought in writings about my life to class. Disguised maybe, but no naked exposure. Was this my signal? Hadn’t I been waiting ever since I had first enrolled for someone to give me permission?
At home, my mind swirled with excitement, splashing and breaking up as the flood of inward expression crashed against rocks of fear. Free-floating trees of pain sped past a shore lined with people shouting what was allowed and what wasn’t. I pounded descriptive words of my early life onto three typewritten pages. The paper remained intact only because the typewriter keys could not express the force within me.
I never returned to class, but the flood had started. A year later I met with the professor and gave him my writings and this letter:
“Dear Professor Rand,
One evening you gave an assignment that we write something unique about ourselves, something that another student would not have experienced. I went home and typed three pages for submission. The writing caused a tremendous amount of emotional pain. Through the writing, something I had not handled was suddenly there on paper. I looked at it and it looked back at me. That was the beginning of writing about my background, which has continued into the present. In your classes I was struggling with many feelings about writing: “I don’t belong here.” “Am I a writer?” “What am I doing here?” The second semester’s assignment suddenly thrust upon me two identity problems at the same time. I had to retreat.”
He gave me a passing grade for the course.