I often wonder why writers write. What was it that brought you to the place of writing?
When I try to answer this question myself, so many moments in my early reading life come to mind. From Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. But I always rush forward in my reading trajectory to a boy on the outstretched limb of a tree, being caught off guard when his friend gives the branch the slightest jostle, sending him crashing to the ground beneath.
Looking back, I now see that moment of I WANT TO BE A WRITER forever entwined–entangled?–with Gene’s jealousy of the almighty perfect-in-every-way Phineas.
Though some of the themes in John Knowles’s of A Separate Peace hold no interest to me whatsoever (I always shy away from any story centered around war and sports are, well impenetrable and uninteresting), it is the relationship between these two main characters that enthralled me so much. From the first pages of this story, I could see what the writer was doing. It was as though I was locked into the story while at the same time capable of bearing witness to the scaffolding behind the story. The scaffolding, in this case, was a simmering jealousy that was effortlessly displayed by the author through the narrator’s gaze. This jealousy boiled throughout the story more powerfully than a screaming tea kettle. I was fascinated by the way the author was manipulating the reader. I wanted to do that. Such duplicity, and such a way of making me, the reader, feel solidarity simultaneously with both characters.
The way Gene, right from the beginning of the story, prayed for his best friend’s failure and comeuppance. And assumed–wrongly, because he was incapable of thinking in any way other than his own–that Finny felt the same way about him.
That relationship and the way it thrilled me as a young reader, that right there was what I wanted to capture as a writer. I savored that moment Gene realized Finny had not a scrap of jealousy for him…that Finny actually wished nothing but the best for him and was, in fact incapable of thinking mean things about him! That was such a sharp slap, such a quick burn to Gene’s psyche. The way Gene tried to fit Finny’s thinking into the way he himself thought was so telling! And that moment it all came crashing down and Gene realized he was just a mean person whereas Finny was incapable of meanness? It was such a fascinating look into friendships and the duplicitous simmerings that sometimes boiled just beneath the surface of them. By making the narrator, Gene, a small, arrogant, mean, and jealous person, John Knowles started me off on my path to wanting to be a writer.
What’s your Writer Origin Story? I know it’s never as simple as one thing. There’s always this leads to this, leads to this, leads to this, leads to this. It’s kind of like in Stephen King’s book The Tommyknockers. Remember? When Bobbi Anderson was walking with her dog, Peter, in the woods and one of her elderly hiking boots fetched up against something…fetched up hard? She thought it was a tree root until she saw a gleam of metal. Roughly three inches…just enough to trip over. Then she thought it might be a tin can. As she began to dig it out, her thoughts went to bigger and bigger possibilities. A piece of logging equipment? A car? If you read The Tommyknockers, then you know what Bobbi found was much much bigger than a car. Like a sliver of the world’s biggest iceberg, that three inches she tripped over was just the beginning of the colossus she would uncover.
What made you trip over writing? It’s hard to pinpoint that magical moment, but if you think about it, you’ll find it. I might answer differently on another day. I may dig a little deeper to unearth more and realize that it was not Gene’s jealousy and smallmindedness that made that final click with me. But today, that’s what I’ve uncovered. My origin story. Jealousy is as good a reason as any, I suppose. All the emotions fascinate writers, don’t they?
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