I’m Not Writing, I’m Just Writing
By Steve Himmer
When Matthew Salesses asked me if I’d write something in response to the cover image for his novel I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, I took one look at the small girl dwarfed by but towing her patchwork kite and decided I’d ask my daughter Gretchen, age five, to help me write a story about it. And why not? Some of my favorite writing of Matt’s are his columns about fatherhood and the way a child’s extra-editorial presence creeps into every word written or — too often, unfortunately — left unwritten when your kids are the young ages of his daughter and mine.
I don’t often pine very long for those lost words and the stories they might have been, though, and after seeing our daughters playing together a few months ago I doubt he does, either. Still, asking his daughter for help with a story worked out okay for Justin Cronin, so what did I have to lose?
“Gretchen,” I asked, “what do you think the story is in this picture?” And she screwed up her face the way she does when she’s thinking, and I waited, and a second later she’d picked up a crayon and had started drawing a picture.
“What about this picture?” I asked. “What should we write about it?”
Without looking up from her drawing she said, “But Daddy, I don’t remember the story.”
“We’ll do it later,” I said, with plenty of time left before the deadline I’d been given by Sundog Lit.
Later came, a few days or a week after that first attempt, and I asked her again about the picture and what story we should tell about it.
“I still can’t remember,” she said, after a very convincing attempt to pry it from her memory, dense as it is with facts about animals and the color of every single car she’s seen in her five years and every moment of every ad, show, or sporting event playing in the background when I didn’t think she was watching TV. You might doubt she had a real story in there at all, you might wonder if she was just going through the motions for my benefit and placation, but I don’t: I knew there was a story in her head, fully conceived, because with Gretchen there always is whether or not she’s willing to share it with me.
So more days and more weeks came and went, and we made a few more unproductive attempts to shake that story loose. With the deadline looming more largely I had no choice but to write something myself, to tell of a failure instead of a story, about best laid plans and eager attempts and bringing to bear as much patience as I could muster, all of those things most parents and writers alike understand, I expect.
It’s too bad, though. Gretchen could have — and probably has — done wonderful things with that girl and her kite. No doubt there would have been fairies involved, because there always are as we work our way through the five billion volumes (give or take) of the Rainbow Magic Fairies series of books. Possibly there would have been mermaids and likely her imaginary friends Ella and Emma and Rafi (the top three from her vast menagerie of unseen — by her parents — acquaintances). She would have zeroed in on the heart of that picture, the most magnificent possibilities of it, the fantastic dream that holds aloft any kite, because how else could anything possibly fly?
Me, though… all I’ve got is noticing that the kite looks a bit sewn together, composed of disparate parts yet somehow a whole, solid enough to haul into a gale but gentle enough for that small girl to stay on her feet. I could probably summon a few other metaphors, too, as awkwardly forced as a kite flown at odds with the wind, about how much that’s like fatherhood and writing and life, and now you’ll have to forgive me for that one, too. Gretchen would have known better. Perhaps that’s why she forgot the story as soon as it came into her head: she knew not to force that rich picture, a fine novel’s fine cover, into becoming only one thing. She knows the story, any story worth telling, is ever-shifting, blown this way and… no, I’ll resist. How many things can I load onto that kite before it falls out of the sky?
Gretchen knows better than to pick a page from the Poet Tree — and I could pretend this is the drawing that distracted her from the story on our first attempt, but it’s not, though it came in the period of our procrastination — before it is ripe, and she knows what kids know and what writers (this one, anyway, Gretchen’s dad) should probably learn, that some leaves can’t be picked because they only make sense on the tree just like some fish only make sense on their bicycles or perhaps up in the air.
Steve Himmer is author of the novel The Bee-Loud Glade, and editor of the webjournal Necessary Fiction. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston.