Many people who write will tell you they started writing when they were children. I would tell you that, too. In elementary school, I wrote piles of poems about everything: popcorn, people, horses (mostly horses). Things with which I had experience, and things about which I knew nothing. I wrote versions of the same short story over and over again, about a stallion defending his herd of mares. I wrote and illustrated a children’s book about a snake who wanted to wear clothes, bound it together, and made a cover out of sample wallpaper. I won a scary story contest sponsored by my local newspaper about a girl who was eaten by her locker. I wrote my first Haiku in a music class, which I still have memorized:
The stallion turned round
as if to gaze at a star.
Then he bolted off.
All of which in retrospect is dreadful and embarrassing. And all of which I kept.
But somewhere in those early teenage years, I stopped writing altogether. I have no idea why.
And then there was my tenth grade English teacher, Perry Weissman. He is the reason I’m writing today. Our first assignment, we unlearned the five paragraph essay. Instead, we learned to write. Something in me sparked. He expected to fail almost everyone’s first paper. Mine, he thought I’d plagiarized, because I woke up and remembered how much I loved to write. Devastated by his accusation, I had to convince him otherwise. Thereafter, he became my champion.
Mr. Weissman introduced me to a quote from Henry James which I have carried with me ever since. It comes from his 1884 article in Longman’s Magazine, “The Art of Fiction”.
Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!
Until today, I never had the context for the quote. Here it is:
The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it — this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, “Write from experience, and experience only,” I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”
On my most aware days, this is how I try to live my life. This is how I see poetry in the world. Notice everything. Be startled by the ordinary. Revel in the everyday. See what’s before you, what you move through, where the day takes you, as a child does: worthy of noticing, of remembering. Of writing down.