I had to have been between four and five years old when I was first stricken with the writer’s curse. So let’s say it was 1965 or 1966. I’ll get to the reasons why it was a curse in follow-up posts. Suffice it to say, for now, the urge – the irrepressible urge – to be a writer is nothing short of a lifelong vexation akin to a gambler’s certainty that the next bet is a sure thing.
In my case, the affliction was happenstance really, the odd confluence of probability and amazement, the state of toy manufacture and the short supply of balsa wood.
I was living in Oakland, California, and being raised by two women: my mother and my grandmother. We lived in an old, two story house with a dirt basement. The basement was very much like a dirt crawlspace, only deeper – deep enough for an adult to stand upright in. For some reason, the furnace that warmed the house had been banished to that underground cavern where seeping water would rise perilously high and threaten to submerge the misbegotten contraption.
To counter this looming catastrophe, occasional trips were required into the cavern, down a wooden flight of rickety stairs to pull a rope that would activate a pump to eject the rising water. Vigilance in this regard was required. There would be no warning before the furnace was submerged and left useless in the muddy depths. So the trek down the steps into the dim space below was a necessity. But since a kid could go down the stairs and pull the rope as well as an adult, I was often given the task of descending into the bowels of that old house to pull the rope and watch the waters lower until just a puddle was left.
It was a scary place, that basement, which was dimly lit, at best, by a single light bulb attached to a dangling cord that fell from a junction affixed to one of the floor joists above. If you’re curious as to the strange architecture of the neighborhood we lived in, pull up Google Earth sometime and fly through the streets around Fleming Avenue, in Oakland, near Seminary Avenue. In particular, look at the houses going north from Seminary up Picardy Avenue or Kingsley Circle. Many resembled castles, miniature and large, with flying round turrets and doors fashioned to look like the entrances to elegant Hobbit holes. Many were reminiscent of fairy tale lodgings for the doomed and oppressed characters in those stories of old.
None of this is directly part of the curse, but for this:
If you are a writer, there is some mechanism in the mind that pulls in imagery – odd imagery like the architecture of that place and the frightening aspect of the cavernous basement – that demands reconciliation and expression in and from the writer’s mind. These images nag, remind, hint, and compel that their influences be heard.
Good luck ignoring them.
Our house was filled with built-in cabinets, with dark lacquered cherry finishes and glass doors that ensured the contents of the cabinetry would be prominently displayed. Glass French doors separated the entryway from the living and dining rooms on either side, and directly ahead lay the dark wood stairway leading to the second floor. There were any number of hidden compartments: benches built in below windows that flipped open for storage, spaces hidden behind what appeared to be part of the walls but were, in fact, doors that could be opened to reveal the dark spaces within. The second-floor bathroom was connected to the first-floor laundry room by a chute that opened up behind another small hidden door. To think small children left alone would not find a way into the laundry chute to work their way slowly down, feet planted and shimmying between its walls, to the first floor was a manifestation of blissful ignorance. It was a wonderful place to play hide-n-seek, provided you were small enough to fit into the myriad hiding places.
I had my own bedroom on the second floor, with a large closet that begged me to believe there were ghosts and malevolent spirits hiding there, in the dark, waiting for their chance to find me foolishly alone and unprotected by my mother. It didn’t help when I overheard my mother and grandmother talking about the ghosts they were certain lived in the house and their conviction that such things might be evil.
In fact, as a child, until I left home at age eighteen, I never lived in a house with my family that was not, in the opinion of my mother and grandmother, haunted. I had friends and neighbors who shared that opinion, leaving me to wonder what unseen things might be lurking in the dark. The history of our family can go so far as to support the idea that something less than kind had its influence on the events surrounding our lives. However, at this stage in my life, I do not believe in such things.
Yet as a small boy I was imbued with the fear of the unseen that all small children share. But I learned to live with the hidden terrors because there was nowhere else to go.
Back to the balsa wood shortage.
Toys were different then.
One of my favorites was a wood shop toy that had a real jigsaw, sander, lathe, and drill press. Each was in miniature but could cut and shape and sand like real tools. The danger to my youthful digits was likely very real.
The problem with the toy, aside from its obvious dangers, was the supply of balsa wood required to use the thing. Without wood, it was just a humming motor and motion. It was good for decapitating toy soldiers when the wood ran out, but after a while even plastic molded victims were in short supply.
So I grew bored with the thing.
But I had another miniature toy. It was a bright orange typewriter. It was very much like a regular typewriter but scaled down to kid size.
One day I sat on the floor in my bedroom, careful to have closed the closet door, but facing it nevertheless – just in case. In front of me was my little typewriter, into which I had placed a sheet of typing paper. The clacking of the strikers and the feel of the keys as I slammed my fingers down on them was fun, a sound and vibration that thrilled me. I remember striking the keys as hard as I could, so the strikers would hit the roller with the paper harder and make even more noise.
I was furiously at it when the door to my bedroom opened and my mother stood there looking down at me.
“What are you doing, Michael?” she asked. She always called me Michael. Never “Mike” or the dreaded “Mikie.”
“Writing,” I answered.
“Oh,” my mother smiled. “What are you writing?”
Dramatically, probably reenacting some scene I’d watched on television, I yanked the paper out and handed it to her.
She took the paper and looked at it with feigned interest while I watched her. Suddenly, her expression changed from indulgence to wonder. She looked at the paper and then down at me.
“Michael! Did you know you typed your own name?”
I didn’t know any such thing, so I said no.
Still, my mother looked at the paper with absolute astonishment, as if she’d just discovered her son was some kind of prodigy. To this day I remember very clearly the change of expression on her face and how I intuited something I’d done had a profound effect on her.
She took the paper then and left the room, silently and confused, I think. Such magic! Look at what I had done! I filled my mother with emotion and made her believe something important had happened.
When she closed the door, I still had the typewriter but no paper left. But I felt I was onto something, so I wouldn’t stop. I began banging on the keys more furiously than before, striking just the roller, but if you looked close enough at the roller, you could still see letters there. Magic brought forth by my tiny fingers.
So the curse began. And in a nutshell, what I saw my mother experience is what I think every writer writes for. To have his or her words bring something magical, maybe even disturbing into the life of another human being.
Little did I know then that half a century later I would think of this episode as “The Infinite Mikie Theorem.”