My students are bored with this world. They ask to write of zombies, vampires, and elves. Perhaps they are bored with my world because they haven’t climbed trees and played in dirt, roamed the wild meadows, experimented with machinery, pounded a new house together with their own hands. They watch television, they gabble on their ‘smart’ phones, they click through the galaxies of the internet; they experience the world remotely, and too often their nonfiction seems remote. I know this can sound like tired complaining, but it’s a fact. Facts have consequences.
As a child, memoirist Rick Bragg lived poor in the red dirt of Georgia. His older brother Sam “came into possession of an old moped” that they stripped down to “a seat and a motor under it, attached it to two wheels. . . . It would run sixty miles an hour on a straightaway. . . . On every slope, on every hump, I was airborne, and I thought, as I cheated gravity, that I was Captain Zoom. It had no fenders, either, so it covered me in a red film of dirt from my ankles to my eyebrows. I tasted grit and did not give a damn.” He does give a damn about his writing; grit between his teeth leads to gritty writing.
As a ten-year-old boy, memoirist Mark Spragg rode horses as a working cowboy on his father’s dude ranch near Yellowstone— a tough, dangerous life. He lived with horses and close to the land, so he could write this: “I close my eyes, and the heat of midsummer swells through me. I see tar-black butterflies at work in the meadows along the Shoshone River, the grasses come thick in seedheads. I smell white-cupped blossoms, bursts of lavender, the weedy scent of the bloodred Indian paintbrush, the overpowering tang of the banks of low-growing sage. I can step my memory onto the backs of the big boulders and hear my boots scruff against the black and rust and corn-yellow lichens that covered them. . . . When the lights were turned off at night it was dark. If the moon was new it was dark enough to walk full-stride into the trunk of a pine. . . . I learned the constellations by sitting out at night. I knew the different voices of the separate families of coyotes that worked our drainage. I knew the phases of the moon more accurately than the days of the month.”
Good training for a writer.
As a child, I lived in what is now Africa’s South Sudan. My friends Lueth and Padayet and I squished mud into the shapes of cows and set long thorns on their heads so we could own a herd of cattle, the one real source of wealth in the Dinka tribe. The boys would drop bits of kaffir corn leading from a nest of biting black ants to a nest of terrible red ants. When the ants met they went to war.
When my family moved to Arkansas, having never fished before, I tied a long white string to a small fishing hook and stabbed small pieces of baloney with the hook so I could haul out the flapping bluegill and sunfish from the sunstruck city stream. When we moved to Kansas, a friend taught me to knock down hurtling quail with a 4.10 shotgun. We cut their warm bellies open and pulled out the thin, translucent intestines and the tiny dark hearts, then washed the stain and smell of blood from our fingers in creek water.
But even if one’s childhood was carefully arranged by furniture, constantly lit by fluorescent lights, leveled and landscaped by developers, and dumbed down by smart phones, a student can start experiencing the world any day of the week. I tell them to walk the neighborhood and write down something they see. Sit in a coffee shop and record a conversation, a dialect. Pace a train track. Observe the insects. Once, on an island in the Mississippi River, I watched a wasp drag a green caterpillar over yards and yards of sand and grass directly to an invisible door of four glued grains of sand. She dropped the paralyzed caterpillar, placed the door aside, then stuffed her children’s food into the secret hole beneath the door, replaced the door, and hummed away across the island: a flying vampire and her zombie prey.
Explore a city alley. I recently read an entire essay by Toby Thompson about the alleys of Missoula, Montana. Or spend a week alone in a canyon as writer Jessica Jacobs did: “Five miles from the nearest neighbor with no electricity and no reception, the cabin’s last inhabitant began hearing things. I wonder if I will, too.” She does: “A week here and already everything is sharper: the crab-crawl of pen over paper, the audible troughs of air displaced by the wingbeats of low-flying hawks. The rhythmic hum I assume to be me—ventrical whoosh and thump, circulatory hiss.”
Then she takes a barefoot walk along the dry-wet sand of a narrow streambed beneath high, red, canyon walls at dusk: “I hear them—the whispery tintinnabulation of distant bells.” She stops. “They stop, too. So I keep walking, listening, straining to hear where they come from . . . . Then I look down. With each step, my heel imprints its own small canyon in the sand. When I step away, a scrim of water rises to fill it . . . . That bubbling up is the bell sound.” It’s real. It’s near. But you have to shut off the phone and shed the shoes to hear it.
You have to hear it to write it. You have to see it to write it.
Read the world.
Steven Faulkner has essays published or forthcoming in North American Review, Fourth Genre, Southwest Review, Shenandoah Review, Southern Humanities Review, DoubleTake, Texas Review, Big Muddy, Wisconsin Trails Magazine, Beacon’s Best, and has been noted in Best American Essays. A movie, Waterwalk, based on his book Waterwalk: A Passage of Ghosts, has been released across the United States and Canada and is now available on DVD. His book in progress is Bitterroot: Traveling with Lewis and Clark, Pierre Jean De Smet, and the Nez Perce.
Illustrations by: Tim Foley. Foley's clients have included national and international magazines, book publishers and advertising agencies, such as The Wall Street Journal, Cricket Magazine, Barrons, New York Newsday, LA Weekly, Penguin Books, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Aside from drawing pictures, he is also a musician and songwriter, currently playing upright bass for The Jukejoint Handmedowns, sails on Lake Michigan in the summer months, and is an avid reader. He currently lives and works in Grand Rapids Michigan with his wife, Terri (a photographer and graphic artist), and his son, Keenan is grown and working as a jazz musician in Chicago.