Story Time With Lady Firesong: My First Love
My first love was words. Even before I could read them myself, I used to beg everyone around me for stories. Read them to me, recite them so I can hear, make them up as you go; it didn’t matter to me. I would become entranced by the images in my mind. I would follow the words being weaved around me like a well-worn path into deeper imagination. Blissfully, I followed along into infinite worlds.
When I was about five or six years-old, my mother would tell a particular favorite of mine; an on-going fable about a little robot who got into all sorts of mischief. He would become lost at sea, or trapped under a pile of fallen leaves, or meet an unhappy unicorn on his travels, and each time would inevitably save the day using the universally-acknowledged tools of friendship, compassion, luck, or some other form of simple morality. No two stories were ever the same. Each bed time would bring a new scenario with new twists to delight and instruct my siblings and me. I didn’t realize until much later what an amazing gift, and tragic loss this was.
Each and every time that little robot got into trouble, I was bound deeper and deeper by the magic of the story. I knew these tales were immortal; they would live on forever in my inspiration, guiding me to the life I was meant to lead. While I wasn’t wrong about where they would lead me, the truth of their finality was a loss I am still rebounding from. My mother was a natural born storyteller, but she was not a writer.
When I was in middle-school my grandfather passed away. He was the central figure of our family. A charismatic, hard-working, hard-living, banjo player who I, tragically, was never able to know as an adult. I think we would have been great friends. He loved music the way I love words. For both of us they are the vehicle by which we connect to a greater truth. He told his story though his banjo, I tell mine though writing. My family was not in mourning nearly long enough for any of us to really heal. The stress of dealing with my grandfather’s passing led to my step-father’s heart attack, and within a very short month my family was changed forever. Thankfully, we didn’t lose him too, but at the ripe old age of twelve I was faced with the sudden realization of mortality. Things die. They pass into memory and leave this world. They… end.
What kind of world did we live in where beautiful and genuine things could simply stop existing? I didn’t doubt the importance of memory, but I began to wonder if there was a more certain kind of permanence to be found. Memories fade. Ideas change. What we used to know to be true could go away as surely as the original thing you are seeking to hold onto. What was the point of creating these wonderful things, if they would ebb into nothingness?
I’m not sure at what point the answer hit me, but it became increasingly clear to me that the answer to mortality lay in words. In writing. Even something that will never be published, that the world will never see, still holds a piece of life within its pages, recorded for posterity. My world blossomed.
I began journaling. A lot. I wrote about everything that happened to me, things that happened to other people, stories I told myself about characters I’d made up, observations about the world around me, and lots, and lots, of bad poetry. It was my outlet. With words as my tool, I was able to give voice to vast oceans of imagination and emotion. I fell more in love with words than ever.
The year I turned sixteen, I met a girl. She was just a person, full of teenage angst and rebellion like the rest of us, but to me, she was beacon. She shone more brilliantly than Polaris in the Arctic, and illuminated my burgeoning ideals of self. She was the catalyst to my awakening, as I like to believe I was for her. Unabashed and unafraid of societal acceptance, we rampaged our way across high school, dancing to the tune of the weird. We were Aurora. Within a bare couple of weeks, our shared loved of the absurd gave birth to a new language consisting of inside jokes, random popping and clicking noises, and hand signals no one knew but us. Communication had moved beyond the need for dictionary definitions of vocabulary and grammatical structure; It now existed on a level without the need for convention. I had never experienced words as nakedly as I did then.
Our adventures inspired me in ways I still can’t entirely put into words. I know, because I’ve tried. Her Junior year, she moved away, off on a new adventure that would shape and change her for her future. I planned to stay in touch, but I suspected that wouldn’t be the case. This magical, mythical moment in my short life would end, as all things do. There was only one solution. I began to write.
I wrote short stories, memoirs full of shared references, exceptionally bad poetry, many many letters, none of which were ever sent. I wrote them to nobody. I wrote them about us. It still wasn’t enough; I was driven to create a true telling, one that would capture the essence of this period of my life. I started a novel. I’ve been writing it for fifteen years.
I was working on a my overly-emotive High Drama love-letter of a novel when I ran into an old friend. He was just a boy I knew from high school. He had graduated a couple of years before me, and we only ever spoke during the one class we had together, but he was a good enough friend for the time we had spent. He shared that spark of the uncanny that always appealed to me – that way of looking at the world beyond what we were told it appeared to be. During particularly long hours trapped in the tedium of school-life, we would engage in philosophical discourse on topics like the meaning of ethics in an inherently self-centered society (like high school), self-monitoring tools for gauging depression, and the role of religious doctrine as it applies to marching band; truly grandiose things that should have been well beyond our understanding of the world, but acted, nonetheless, as an outlet for a pair of creative minds that were trying to form an understanding of the world.
He was a writer. He wrote a series of short stories that were, and still are, my favorite example of applied surrealism. They were just silly things he had tossed together for fun, but when I read them, I changed again. Every story I had read in my life up to this point had been essentially the same thing. Changes in point of view, or character development, or basic plot structure were all the variation I’d come to expect from works of fiction. I was sure I knew what writing was all about, because, after all, I had read. A lot. But this… this was new.
His irreverent playfulness sparked a deep joyfulness, one that I hadn’t realized was missing in me since my mother stopped telling her little robot stories. My friend danced with the words on the page, gently urging them into a whimsical web of imagery, and his nonsensical characters were more real that any I had tried to craft in my “serious” writing. Unexpected phrases and overturned cliches riddled the unarguably silly story, in a way that made it wholly new, and completely great. He hates them.
I tried to incorporate some of his style into my own writing. What if I didn’t stick to the structure I was used to, and just let my words play on the page? What would happen? I was completely transformed by the pure, unabashed absurdity brought to life by the stories my friend had written, and I was determined that I could do it too. I remained myself as a writer, and began to craft fun, lively, beautiful things. Ideas flowed through me so fast, I couldn’t keep up with them. I was one with the page, writing every day, every moment of free time I had I spent scribbling in my notebook, typing on my laptop, and just telling myself stories. It was bliss.
With this newfound style of word-wrangling, I was sure my writing would be better than ever. I started my novel over completely. Then I started a new one. And then another. For the next two years, in fact, I did nothing other than start the beginnings of great stories. I wrote plenty of poetry, some of it even pretty good, but I never saw that as writing in the same way that short stories and novels were writing. They were easy, and took a few minutes to compose. I didn’t think when I wrote poetry, I simply let the words flow out. It was much like painting an abstract picture; if I could get the general sense of my emotional state across, then it was successful. Stories were about something real.
Over and over again I wrestled with my desire to be a novelist. I still have several notebooks full of scenes two, three, and five pages long, that never went anywhere. The prose was delightful, fresh and fun, but I couldn’t finish them. In most cases, I couldn’t even go back to them. I was wandering, lost, from one fictional world to the next, driven by nothing other than the conflict of a desire to be heard, and nothing to say.
My father was an editor. My grandfather was a novelist. My paternal uncle a poet, and my maternal uncle a journalist. Writing was coded in my DNA. It’s always been a part of my history and my lifeblood. Yet, here I was, unable to complete a story. What right did I have pretending I was a writer? It hurts to give up on your dreams, but in all my inalienable wisdom, I was sure that giving up on childish fantasies and becoming a proper grown up was right action. And so I did.
I stopped writing.
Creative Non-Fiction. I saw the name for the course in my college registration catalog. It was a term I was completely unfamiliar with. Isn’t nonfiction just textbooks and biographies? Newspapers and magazines? Where is the creativity in that? Fiction is where you get to exercise your imagination and create new worlds with your literary prowess. So what is this nonsense?
I took the course. I had to know.
The teacher was a sassy, opinionated, firebrand who was unafraid of arguing a point until it was clear. Her curriculum was a simple, workshop-style course. Each week, we would write a short piece and review and discuss it with the class. The prompts were simple things like, “tell a story about a time you met someone new”, or “write a memory from when you were a child”. I didn’t really know what to write about, but I committed to the class, and each week I found something new to put down on paper for my classmates.
One week, we were given a prompt; “write about something you struggle with”. I sat at my computer for most of the week, staring at a blank screen, wondering where I would find the words. I stared at it so long, my head started to hurt. My headache turned into a migraine, and I went to bed, grateful that I had an excuse to ignore the assignment for a little longer. I returned to class empty handed and gave my excuses to the teacher. She nodded sagely, and I waited to be granted my extension so I could go quietly back to my seat. She looked at me, quizzically at first, then bored. “You didn’t do it because you had a migraine? Why don’t you write about that?”
I’ve always suffered from migraines, frequent and debilitating, at times. I had always thought of it as a handicap, a failure on the part of my body to behave like it should. It was something to be overcome, not a source of inspiration. It was something I had always… struggled… with. I resigned myself to the task, and returned to my blank word processor, ready to do battle. The piece I wrote is still one of my favorite works. It was honest, it was real, and it hurt me to write it, because it was me. It was my story.
I was telling my story.
The class loved it. I earned a few looks of pity, but by and large I was lauded for my ability to craft a narrative that captured my audience. It was my story. I saw it now. I churned out narrative after narrative in the following weeks. Some of them were decent, but most were terrible. Still, I was invigorated by the chase. I would hunt down every story I could find and craft it into a magical, static, immortal form! My teacher saw this change in me, and the class responded in kind. Views and opinions were flung around the room like water balloons, breaking open on impact and showering you with new realizations of what storytelling was really about. She would sit there and smile, as if she hadn’t planned this all along. I took every other class she was teaching that year.
I began doing freelance work with the writing resource center at school. I would help students proofread their essays, troubleshoot problematic phrases, clarify points; simple general editing. It was fun. It wasn’t anything I had considered before, but it brought everything together in a way that made sense. I could see the story they were trying to tell, and I just helped them clear away everything that was obscuring it. When we were done, the story would shine though. A seed was planted.
Over the years I did a lot of freelance work. I worked on white papers and technical documents for tech-companies, I cleaned up foreign-language translations so they flowed better in English, and occasionally, I would still get to work on short stories. I was busy. I legitimized it.
The first incarnation of Firesong Arts was an Assumed Business Name through the State of Oregon. It sounds impressive, but really, it just meant that I was me, doing business under the name of my company. I still paid my own taxes, I didn’t have any employees, and it sure didn’t feel like a real company, but it was surprisingly easy. This was what I love and I wanted to keep doing it. I was inspired by my clients. I was inspired by their message.
I write every day. Mostly working on this blog, though I still write short stories and bad poetry when I can. Most of my time is spend sharing in the delights of the writers around me, as I read, and edit, and polish their content. The written word permeates every part of my life. Every day. All day. My clients tell me they like what I do; I hope that’s true. I try to do what I can for them. For their Stories.
I am still inspired by their message.
My first love was words. Even before I could read them myself, I knew we were destined to be together forever. The road I’ve taken to get where I am has been long, and confusing, and at times heartrendingly obscured by vanity, and pride, and doubt. But I have to keep walking it. As I learned from that fateful writing class; we are all storytellers. The moments of our lives are only part of the greater tale we have to tell. We tell it by how we live, what we say and do, how we interact with each other, and how we see ourselves. Ever step on this road, is another piece of the story, that each of us, as storytellers, has to share, whether the telling is through a mural painted on a wall, a lingering hug between friends, or a banjo picking a lively tune. I am living my Story through words. My grandfather would be proud.
I still haven’t finished my novel.