What I want to tell you about writing and craft comes out of my life. It comes from growing up poor, and yet, opposed to what you might expect, it's unapologetically optimistic. To get there, I need to tell you a few of my family's privations, which were abundant and shitty. And, through this, I must also talk about the ways I behaved. Which often wasn't very well. And which makes me uncomfortable.
Poverty begins as an economic state, but it becomes a state of mind. The poor are told, by dint of circumstance, that they can't take care of themselves. So, I think, they are afraid. Or maybe this isn't true. I don't know. (Does truth arise from generality?) What's true is that I've spent much of my life afraid: afraid that I'll have too little money, too little time, too few friends; afraid that the good things that come to me will end; afraid that I'll never find a relationship (and, then, if I do find an off-kilter, or violent, relationship, that I'll never find another); afraid that I'll never have enough to say, that any decent thought, any good idea, any lovely word—shudder, apiary, tern—will be the last.
I need to stop skirting the specifics. (Do you believe that to begin is an act of fiction? I do.) One last note: I don't want sympathy. I certainly don't want condemnation. What I'd like is for you to think about whether the place you come from might have told you, as mine told me, that opportunity does not come often, so that when it does come you have to grasp it, hard as hell, and never let go.
I'll begin here: for years, we didn't have a car. We took a bicycle to the grocery store. The bike was old and green, and my brother and I called it the Clunker. (A 1950s Schwinn that had belonged to my grandparents, it could have been charming. But it wasn't charming.) My dad wheeled it home with grocery bags hanging from its handle bars.
My family—Mom, Dad, my brother and me—had food stamps. Dingy pastel bills printed with the presidents (Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington) and the words FOOD COUPON. They looked like counterfeit money.
We moved from house to house, tossed out, evicted, unable to pay the rent. For a while, we lived without my dad. Mom smoked. She drank a lot of vodka. (Later she'd go to rehab and stop drinking altogether.) Once, she burned my brother with a cigarette. It was hard to tell if it was an accident. My brother and I landed in foster care. That family had bunk beds. Our stay was brief.
In the house and in the yard, my brother and I fought. He hit me with a piece of bamboo, or knocked my head into a window sill. I kicked him into a bookshelf, held him down, split his lip. Because I was three years older, I hurt him more often than he hurt me.
Food stamps weren't enough, so we visited food banks. Boxy buildings and churches that handed out brown paper bags filled with canned peas, potatoes, and Wonder Bread.
One of the houses we lived in, on Sunset Drive, got condemned. When my brother and I came home from school, our belongings were on the front lawn. Our brown-and-orange plaid couch. Our lamps and Legos in the grass. We couldn't find our mom (and Dad was living in another state), so, that night, we slept outside on the couch. I was twelve. My brother was nine.
As you might suspect, there were repercussions: at night, I shot out dozens of neighbors' windows with BB guns. With a rock, I broke plate glass windows in the school across the street from our house. In the cemetery, I toppled gravestones.
And: the police arrived, standing on the porch and knocking on the door, speaking with my parents. The police came fairly often. Bad checks, arrests warrants, neighbors' complaints. This time someone at school had reported bruises on my brother's back. Mom and Dad explained, on the porch, that, no, it wasn't child abuse. It was me.
And: from the drugstore, Nihan & Martin, I stole candy. From K-Mart, I stole school supplies. As I got older, I broke into houses. I took bills found in drawers, a silver dollar collection, a French horn. I broke into a school. A factory. A machine shop. I took what I could.
In The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck writes: "To be alive at all is to have scars." When I was got into graduate school to study writing, one of my teachers told me that I was holding back. Clutching to my ideas, my bits of language, storing them away. "What," he asked, "was I saving them for?" I was doing what I'd always done: holding on, saving something for later, for that moment when there was nothing left. Does this sound familiar to you? What I could furnish, to myself or to others, would never be enough. Nevertheless, my teacher gave great advice: "When you've got it," he said, "use it right away."
When I was fourteen, my family bought a car—a two-door hatchback Dodge Colt—and my brother and I wheeled the Clunker to the cemetery. We threw the bike off an embankment, over and over, until it was in pieces. Even the frame bent out of shape.
I've moved away from my early impoverishment. It's taken time, and I had a lot of help. From my teachers—Mrs. Yaude, Mrs. Currier, Peter Vandenberg, Adria Bernardi, Anne Calcagno, Robert Bosworth, Charles D'Ambrosio, John Vernon—who loaned me their generosity until I found the seeds of my own. From the bounty and grace and body of my spouse, Catherine. From the years spent writing with my cat, Pequeño, sitting on my lap. From weeding the yard; watching the gold finches at the feeder; taking long walks; holding Catherine's hand. From my kids, Emerson and Lake, who, watching my inept woodworking, have always believed that I could build whatever they wanted—a bench or a chicken coop or a boat. And so I have learned.
I want to retell my teacher's advice in my words. So here goes: when it comes to your writing, spend your capital immediately. Don't hold back. Let shit fly! Let the narrative come and put it—sudden and fresh—to the page. Be generous. Give of yourself. As you think of a word—oblong, tangerine, cellophane, swell—use it. Breathe deeply. Have faith. You are an endless fount. Your capacity for beauty, and for decency, is infinite. As is mine.