Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Jump-start Part I

I cannot begin a story of the jump-start without first recollecting the early winter of 2000, and my friend Andrea Hess. Andrea was not a writer, at least not a writer like I'm accustomed to knowing. No, Andrea studied music. Our friendship was neither about writing, nor music. Our relationship centered around the existential dilemmas of our 20s. Much of our time together happened in bars, which may have been my doing I suspect.
On a night in January, I had gone to bed early, because like so much of my Portland winter experience, I was sick. At some point after the bars closed, Andrea called me. She called me because I lived close by, and because she knew I'd do anything for her. She and Jenna had spent the evening in an Irish Pub downtown and during their stay there, the battery in their car had gone dead. You guessed it, they needed a jump-start.
Sick, tired, not feeling human, I went to the assistance of my friend with jumper cables in hand.
In the rain, I jumped their car and off we all went.
Only later, weeks I think, Andrea told me the car battery was not dead and the reason it hadn't started was because of some sort of Volvo trick of engaging the key in the proper manner. They had, of course, figured it out only after they dispatched me, but before I arrived.
The situation was worth the laugh. Needless to say, I would have jumped her car under any circumstances. Helping someone else get going, or helping someone get gone is a noble consideration.
Leaving Andrea aside for a moment, did I mention the existential dilemmas of our 20s? In those days I worked for a living: non-profit work. The very nature of non-profit work is the long hours and small pay that only a recent college graduate can endure. Hell, I had no idea that there were jobs available that paid more and required less of my time. Rather, I worked and worked and worked and I was so unhappy I didn't even understand the depth of it.
There were some particularly nasty things happening in me and around me. In November of 1999, someone broke into my car and stole the US map and photograph bag containing a few letters (some read, others unopened) and a composition notebook much like the one I'm writing in now. The loss of the bag I had carried through the war nine years prior sent me into a hatred for Portland that could not be resolved despite the beer and tequila remedy I had prescribed. The contents of the bag? The lost composition notebook bothered me too. 1999 was not a particularly prolific year for me, and in contrast to the freedom and writing of 1998, it was even more dismal. It was so dismal, in fact, that the lost composition notebook was only the second one of the year, and it was November when it was taken. Of the 200 pages one of these books have, I was nearly finished completing that one. Those pages represented months of labor, toil, pain and anger summed up in fits and starts: petty poetry and half conceived vignettes. And to my horror, it was gone.
I've listened to writers, would be writers and wannabe writers talk about writer's block. I don't believe in writer's block now, and I don't think I was suffering from it then. I simply did not have the time to focus on the writing then because it was clearly a lack of priority. Work, partying, searching for answers and struggling at the mercy of the time were the priorities. Nonetheless, the loss of the composition notebook was not a good thing.
In the weeks after the burglary, I kept replaying a scene in my head. In this scene there were two men standing on a street corner in Denver, Colorado. The first man, Vance Aandahl was a soon to be retired instructor of writing. The second man, me, was a recent student of his. The conversation went like this:
“In my 32 years of teaching, I've learned it's the prolific writers who succeed.”
“You're the real writer Vance.”
“Anthony, you're the writer.”
“I don't have the command that you do. You're the real writer.”
“I took the easy way out.”
“What? What does that mean?”
“I taught writing. The real writer writes. The real writer writes the way you do.”
“Vance, you're the real writer, I only wanted to be a writer because of you.”
“Anthony, I've met very few writers who write as much as you.”
“You're the real writer,” I said. I was young and I had to have the last word. We were on the corner of 17th and California and the conversation ended there when he got on the bus.
So, I had Vance's admiration. This is important, every student wants the respect and acceptance of the teacher.
After the bag was stolen, I couldn't shake the Vance Aandahl conversation from my thoughts. He had not praised my use of language, he had not praised my clever plot lines or my characters. No, he praised the amount of writing. Yes, that's right, he praised the quantity. Within a year of that conversation I wasn't writing at all.
Worse still, it was going to be months before I would be writing again.
I spent months doing that stupid dance called life. I went to work. I went to movies or bars at night. I constantly wondered what would happened if I just took the jump.

The jump came in August of 2000. I turned 28 years old on the eleventh, I finished up my assignment as camp director of the 13th. My last day at work was on the 15th. I bought a new composition notebook that afternoon. Suddenly, I had time. I spent a month walking around the neighborhood drinking coffee and playing pinball. I waited and waited and waited for the words to start pouring out of me.
But to no avail.
Vance's words kept haunting me.
My friends were good to me, they were all very supportive. They all urged me to go out into the world and do what I had to do.
And still I had nothing.
I was walking down NW 21st between the STOP and ROB, where I played a few games at the Medieval Madness pinball table, and Anna Bananas for some coffee. It was there, right there on the street that I ran into Andrea. She had recently moved into the neighborhood. Our conversation was mostly about mutual friends. I asked about Jenna. When we went our separate ways, I thought about the night of the jump-start. I only thought about it as the actual event and not as allegory.
By the time I stepped into Anna Bananas I knew I needed help, I needed a jump-start for my writing.
That day I asked three of my coffeehouse buddies to tell me two things they liked:
Melissa: toes and tattoos
Laura: talking to Rosie and the beach
Emma: coffee and cream

I used these “twos” as writing prompts. These two things that each of them gave me made the filling of notebook pages and the draining of old pens happen with a frequency to make Vance Aandahl proud.
The fall of 2000 is best summed up as the beginning of my consciousness as a writer. I wrote all day during work. I was technically a file clerk at an insurance agency. I wrote all evening at the old and weathered tables at Anna Bananas. It all started with the jump-start. Those writing prompts, toes and tattoos, Rosie and the beach; coffee and cream, I am forever grateful.
It doesn't go much deeper than that. We all need a place to start. As I began to teach writing, I knew the value of starting small. I start smaller than even two items. Sometimes a novel can be born from a haiku. Stay tuned for the Jump-start part two.

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