Into My Own: My Story as a Writer, Part II – Why I Wrote (1986)

I began my autobiography as a writer with an essay that explained how I began writing. It told the story of how I wrote my first poem in a note to a friend and how intoxicating those early days felt after finding this vehicle for getting things out of my head into the world. In reality, I had no idea what that world was all about let alone how to communicate with it. I had merely discovered a tool for getting my thoughts out of my own head, perhaps simply to communicate with myself. So, why did I write? This communication proved invaluable for me to understand who I was. It took another half dozen years for me to learn the phrase introvert and what it meant and probably another dozen or more for me to really understand what the definition truly meant in real terms. I did know that my head got stuck on things that other people didn’t seem too interested in and I was labeled as Serious.

Like any teenage boy, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin and needed to figure out how to fix this discomfort. Funny that none of my poetry about teenage emotional angst survived that fateful move that lost my enumerated, sacred early works. While this may have its merits in quality control, its merits in understanding what things plagued me are distinctly absent. Now, I only have a few remaining poems that I took the time to transcribe into the computer when I got to college, so they must have mattered more than the others, either because I thought they were of better quality or they meant something significant to me. They each offer different clues to answer the riddle of why I wrote (note, that I still kept the exact dates they were written, a helpful convenience today).

The Dreams of Coronus
May 25, 1986

Looking up from below
He stands high above me
I search in the heavens
As the world will see
Wherever I search,
He stands beside me
His hands support my soul
The dreams of Coronus
The dream of Peace
He watches
He understands
I feel the presence of Heaven

Aside from revealing my poor conjugating ability, what this really reveals is a significant clue into why I wrote. First, for clarity, Coronus is me; my name being Stephen, Stephen meaning crown in the original Greek, and Corona being the word for crown in Latin, the language I took in high school. I will let the pretentiousness speak for itself, but at the very least this serves as an early indication of being unable to reconcile this inner being who wrote with the outer being everyone knew as Steve. Not yet 16, I was writing about God, grappling with faith and finding confidence in my beliefs. This didn’t feel normal to me back then. Maybe it was normal, maybe it wasn’t.

I do know this confidence in my beliefs reflected in “Dreams of Coronus,” gave me confidence to reject a lot of the things that other kids were exploring at that age, like drugs and alcohol. The neighborhood I grew up in was a little more remote and off a too-busy and unsafe highway to walk down into town to hang out with the bulk of the kids. As a result, I grew up a little more isolated; not alone, by any stretch, it was still a neighborhood with neighborhood kids and regular activities like sledding and capture the flag, but it was far removed from the party culture that grew up elsewhere. In the end, this never bothered me, and the distance proved crucial in my development as a writer as well as a young adult. Plus, I became interested in Serious things, like God and peace.

The Child
June 19, 1986

Bullets pierce and echo the air
Villagers abandon their flaming homes
The king cannot see, only the Lord sees
Reasons do not matter as bloodshed begins

On a hilltop the one flag quivers in the wind
Tears pour into the Child’s innocent eyes
His brother has died in the flames of war-
Horror from what was once so grand

Unnoticed, underfoot our freedom drifts
We, sightless, block our ears from the Child’s wail
His father has died in the ocean of war
Only to be as us- free

The fire rages across the countryside
The Child is shot in his tears
The memory of his brother burns
The memory of his father drowns

One man fills his jars with tears
His son fills dreams with fears
Both are dead, burned by lead
Nothing left, there is no son

Nothing left, there is no village
At dawn the flames consumed the last morsel
On a hillside the one flag quivers
The stars shine, the bullets pierce the air

We bury the Child under the flag
His father would have won the flag
They bled too long for
A reason too wrong

Bullets pierce and echo the air
The village burnt to the ground
Does any flesh mourn the Child?
Oh Lord…

Reasons do not matter when innocence sheds blood.

These poems explain a lot about what this Serious late-15 year old boy was concerned about and goes a long way to confirming how Serious I was. My mother always called me Too Serious, a comment that felt more disparaging than she meant it to be as she longed for me to be healthy and happy. However, she was right. I was too serious to really fit in with my peers and really struggled with the right and wrong of feeling out of place in my own skin. With “The Child,” I began to tap into the compassion that I felt as an essential element of my Catholic lessons, and still do.

When I read these words today, I hear the voice of a young man compelled to write as a vehicle for expressing things he couldn’t just talk about in casual conversation. After all, who really wants to talk about war and God in between 200s at swim practices or while trading baseball cards or while sneaking looks at the latest Swimsuit edition? Thus writing became an essential vehicle to figure out how my beliefs defined my reactions to a growing awareness of the world and the great tragedies that were the by-products of historic events, here the death of children in war.

Vision of Tomorrow
July 31, 1986

The world is restless under my feet
I haven’t seen the sun in days
Black clouds hover the ground I walk
Yet there is no one to see what I see

The world rots in universal entropy
No light finds the grass I walk
Heaven’s tears flood the pours of my dry skin
Heaven’s roars frighten the tiny children

Here in this isolated town sleeps a naive soul
Blind by youth to the world in his eyes
He knows none see his visions
He knows he speaks false words

Here in this isolated town I sleep
Blind by youth to the mad world in my eyes
I worry of love and other bittersweet passions
I will rise above to see the world

Over the Appalachians and through the pines
I long to have the vision of years
Yet only through time will God grant my wish
I will still dream of mares in the night, and white stallions.

Lightning flashes in my eyes
The princes and slaves, two-faced societies
The land ahead is covered by clouds
I run onward in spite of my blindness

Does she on the blue-green hilltop have sight
Are the stars above hers to gaze in a dreamy awe
Does she lie blind like the naive soul I am
She is one of the merry youth

A naive child searching through the attic
I look for the key to open my sight
Soon I will find it and unlock the door
Open my eyes to the winds eluding me

The key has been stolen
The door opens before my naive eyes
The wind’s howl threatens the lies in my life
Of sweet music and star filled skies

Shut the door- my eyes burn
My ears long for the sweet music
Reality is upon the blue-green hilltop
The stars are ours in a dreamy awe

Is this my sight?
Are these mountains only my visions?
Will you look with me or sit alone?
I, naive child dare to be an adult

There she rests alone on the blue-green hilltop
She has the stars in her gaze of dreamy awe
If only the stars were not behind the clouds
I would trap the stars in her gaze

The world rushes behind the drag of my feet
The light of the sky is hidden for me to find
I write these words never to be understood
Like the scream of a child in a moonless night

Please let me gaze at a starlit sky
One last chance to wish upon my naive falling star
Soon the truth will burn this naiveté
My child will crumble in the heap of an adult

She sits with me on the blue-green hilltop
The stars are ours to gaze in a dreamy awe
The sun will shine upon our new days
The blackness of night will pass

Will the world wait for me?
I gaze my dreamy awe one last time
Run from the hilltop with me, dream and weep
Soon the world will turn in the palm of your warm hand.

The final poem rescued from those floppy discs perhaps tells the most about who this 15-year-old boy version of me was – and clearly, there is a lot of confusion in this mess of a poem. The loneliness of being Serious screams out as well as the isolation and the longing to understand why. There is arrogance directed at my peers and frustration about being young and naïve. There is longing for adventure and there is romance and there is longing for a mysterious “she” on a hill that will understand me and gaze up at the same stars I saw.  Maybe this she was the blonde runner I idealized and had a crush on or maybe this “she” is poetry or The Muse.

In these words, I find a boy who wanted almost too badly to be an adult without any real understanding of what that meant, but was fairly prescient about it “My child will crumple in the heap of an adult.” Clearly, not being Serious wasn’t a real option to me, and I was bound and determined to figure out why and what I was serous about.

And so I wrote.

Into My Own: My Story as a Writer, Part I – How It Began (1985)

Into My Own – Robert Frost (1913)

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Robert Frost began his fabled poetry career with this poem, the first in his collection, A Boy’s Will published in 1913 by Henry Holt and Company in New York City. When I look back on how my poetry career began with its reliance on cliché and painfully forced “abab” rhyming quatrains, I discover my invitation to steal away into my own vast woods, fearless of what I would find. Frost’s first poem articulates my journey perhaps better than I ever could. I should expect this, really, as growing up in New Hampshire, Frost serves as the first distant poetic forebear in my life like that unknowable and elusive relative who captures the imagination of a young child. Of course, Frost wasn’t a relative, but provides the first introduction to poetry for, I can imagine, any child of New Hampshire. We all read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and deciphered the significance and metaphor of “And miles to go before I sleep” often with some degree of awe. As teenagers, we each vowed to find our road not taken that needed wear, knowing it would make all the difference. High school yearbook kind of stuff, right?

My story as a writer, though, begins with a letter I wrote to my friend, L, reflecting on an amazing summer experience with our group of friends. It had been the idyllic carefree summer of youth; we all had nicknames based on the Wizard of Oz, had spent seemingly endless hours together at the pool and beach, and generally existed in that plane of existence where nothing really mattered except being together, silly romantic trysts and heartbreaks, and laughing. We weren’t yet in line for the Captaincy of the swim team, we just needed to swim our events and play our part. There were older kids to look up to and younger kids to teach the cheers. We were learning who we were.

Amongst other things, my niece was born that summer and I became affectionately called Uncle S; I came into my own as a swimmer and won the state championship in 100m breaststroke; I visited my best friend and his family in Oxford from where we travelled to Paris, Rome, and Florence; and I was given a proper introduction to U2 and Simple Minds while watching Live Aid and later Tears for Fears, discovering the first musical voices that spoke to me on a deeper level than Rick Springfield, Foreigner, or Phil Collins.

And, I started writing. As that letter to L drew to a close, I became inspired and wrote a poem titled, “Always Remember” complete with those clichés and rudimentary rhyme schemes. Upon completion of writing the letter, I ran down to mom and dad with youthful enthusiasm to read them this poem and reveal my newly discovered talent. Now Frost I was not, but my parents listened with kindness and said their equivalent of “that’s nice, S.” I went back upstairs to my room oblivious of the patronization. I didn’t care, I had discovered something important in me, I had discovered the opening in the stone wall that would enable me to get past those dark trees that scarcely showed the breeze. I figured out how I was going to express the things that never successfully escaped my brain or my heart and was on a path to either open land or a highway.

Over the next months, I would come home from school, throw down my backpack and just write, typically while listening to music. Each poem was sacred and once complete, numbered, and put inside a three-ring binder to save for posterity. If I recall correctly, L, who was in 8th Grade and therefore up the hill at the middle school and I, in 10th Grade and at the high school, couldn’t see each other as often as we did during the summer. So we bought a spiral notebook, took turns writing our missives and would swap it out in the bus turnaround at her school at pick-up.

In this notebook and on these loose numbered pages, I began the writing repetitions that fanned the flames for creative expression in me. Everything around me became poetry and I could hardly contain the ideas. At some point, the binder became full of all the teenage angst ridden thoughts I needed to get out, like poison, from my system. None of them were any good, but what they lacked in quality they made up for in significance. When I tell my children how important it is to write the crap, I draw from this experience. Whatever the quality, these poems were IMPORTANT, so important I wouldn’t even touch pen to their paper again letting them live in their own sacred space as if inspired by some divine element… even if they were mostly crap.

Sadly, during one of my moves with the Navy, the movers lost those poems; an entire file cabinet of stuff that mattered to me, gone. I was heartbroken, in a way, and would search the same corner of the attic or basement or garage over and over hoping that I had just missed the file cabinet or had put them in some other storage box that I hadn’t remembered. They are gone. Fortunately, a move or two later, I discovered my old Macintosh SE floppy discs that contained everything from those folders and notebooks that I had typed into my first computer bought for college. A computer science professor converted them to a DVD for me to upload onto my home computer. My friendship with L sadly faded over the years although Facebook has notionally reconnected us, but we won’t be passing notebooks again any time soon. And most of those early poems never made the cut once I moved away from pen and paper and started using this new fangled device called a computer. What remains of that time are only a few poems, including this one:

Always Remember
September 10, 1985

Summertime is gone
With it the sunshine
There will be a new dawn
With it new sunshine

Life does not end
With one season
Look around the bend
You will see the reasons

Don’t forget your new found friends
Or your old renewed friendships
Never forget our summertime trends
Be ready to sail on new ships

Life is meant for living and loving
Keep on learning and discovering

You must carry on
Without written lines
Because there comes a new dawn
And with it new sunshine

Remember trust and love
And with them patience
You will see a white dove
True love will make sense

Remember, Summertime is gone
With it the warm sunshine
Soon comes the awaited dawn
With it warmer sunshine