By Jeremiah O’Hagan
I think the magic of reading and writing is the startling places to which it whisks our brains and emotions, most notably the places inside ourselves that we’ve forgotten or didn’t know about in the first place.
I said that not long ago. I got to be part of the June 3 “Local Writers Read,” sponsored by SHARK REEF and Lopez Bookshop, and when I was asked to give a little bio and a few quotations to be used in my introduction, that’s what I said.
I was wrong.
When I was a kid, magic enthralled me. My mom took my cousins and my brother and me to a magic show, and I watched the magician saw in half a wooden box with a woman inside. I saw him stab sabers through a box with another woman inside. I saw people disappear, saw scarves turn into doves.
Another time, my mom took us to a science exhibit. It was a lot like a magic show — all kinds of crazy stuff that occurred naturally. The details are foggy, but toward the end the guy rotated a window frame with a bar stuck through it, front to back. My mind — every mind in the room — saw the window reversing direction, spinning around the bar, the bar passing through the window. A window, spinning around a bar.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a writer. I figured I’d teach to pay bills. When I started teaching, I was astounded by how much I loved it. I was a teacher, happily, and I wrote little things on the side.
Then I lost my teaching job. When I saw a help-wanted for a reporter at the local weekly, I applied. The editor hired me. I was pretty cranky about the articles I wrote — the fact that I needed sources for everything, the fact that I was constrained by the facts of the interviews, that fact that I had to keep myself out of everything I wrote. I wasn’t a writer, I told people, I was a reporter.
Instead of sawing women in half, I settled for card tricks as a kid. Pick a card, any card. Look at it and put it back. Shuffle. Cut the deck. Is this your card?
I was nearly always wrong, because I never learned to execute the tricks properly. I was constantly looking for shortcuts. I would rather make a decent guess 57 times, and be wrong 54, than sit down and actually learn how to do the tricks, because learning the tricks was difficult.
The window wasn’t spinning around the bar. It was an Ames’s Window — a prop crafted to look like a window, but with “perspective” built into it. Instead of a rectangle, it was a trapezoid. The illusion was that we thought it was a rectangle, because that is the shape of windows, and that the widest end of the window was nearest us, even when it wasn’t, because that’s how our brain has learned to see windows in perspective. The scientist explained this to us. He said he took this same getup to Eskimos who lived in igloos and had never seen a window. He asked them what it was, and they told him it was a metal frame with a bar stuck through it.
We see what we want to see. We see what we’ve been conditioned to see.
The newspaper kicked the romanticism out of writing. I couldn’t even tell what I thought it meant to be a writer, back then. Did it mean I had better or different or more poetic ideas than other people? Did it mean I was attuned to some quiet reverberations in the universe? Did it mean life spoke differently to me?
I can tell you now what it means to be writer: It means you hammer the keys beneath your fingertips. You don’t need a muse, a love, a broken heart or a bottle of whiskey. A deadline helps, though.
I’m back to teaching now, and I still work at the newspaper, also. Two jobs sucks sometimes, but at least they’re jobs I enjoy.
The other day I handed out a short story to my students. “We Live in Water,” by Jess Walter. I told them it was originally published in Playboy. I thought this might intrigue them.
“How do you like it?” I asked one girl, after 20 minutes.
“It’s terrible,” she said.
“What’s terrible about it?” I said.
“It’s just bad.”
“Maybe you’ll understand it better once you get to the end. How far have you read?”
“I read the first two paragraphs,” she said.
Many of my students aren’t passing my class. I have a reputation for teaching the hardest class in the school. It’s not true. My class is simple: To pass, you do the assignments. The students who aren’t passing aren’t turning in anything. Their “Fs” have long strings of zeroes behind them.
“What can I do to pass?” they say.
“You can do the work,” I say.
There is no magic.
There’s not even magic in magic. You have to learn the card trick. You need the special box for the saw-the-woman-in-half trick, and you need to learn how to use it. To understand the story, you need to read it. To pass the class, do the work. To be a writer, write.
One of my favorite quotations goes like this: “The space between daily language and literature is neither terribly deep nor wide, but it does contain a vital difference — of intent and intensity.” (Mary Oliver)
Everything takes an investment of time and attention. Everything from which we hope to earn a return exacts a price.
To be a writer, you need to sit alone and you need to write. You need to turn away friends, sometimes, and shut down the television, and put the phone on airplane mode, and decline drinks, and stop thinking you’re special. Stop talking about being a writer. Instead, humbly catch other people’s stories, and turn them back to the world with as much grace and talent as you can muster.
SHARK REEF editor Lorna Reese and I selected 11 prose stories for this issue, and poetry co-editors Gayle Kaune and Richard Widerkehr chose 11 poems. Each piece took an investment on both ends. The writer wrote, and we read. What I said at the beginning — I was wrong. There is no magic in reading and writing. It is all work.
Miracles, though, exist. A miracle is what happens when we invest in something and it unfolds for us. The essay or poem comes together. Or the piece we’re reading does in fact whisk us back to when we were five, or into a subconscious of which we weren’t aware. We see Ames’s Window, and even though we know it’s not really a window, it’s just an illusion constructed with care, it is to us in that moment a window slowly spinning around a bar and reversing direction. It’s a miracle, this thing our brain is doing with our eyes and memories, and there’s no reason in the world to not delight in it.
Copyright O’Hagan 2016