Posted on February 1, 2019
A workbook or journal is part of the Neil Gaiman Master Class I’m taking so I’ve decided to put mine here in the blog.
Lesson 2 is about honesty in writing and how being honest can add a sense of verisimilitude to your story.
But that’s more difficult than it sounds. We tend to gloss over the most important memories, the ones that would most help in our writing, because they thrum with uncomfortable emotions we’re loathe to revisit.
I don’t need a memory of a perfectly happy picnic to help me describe a sunny, carefree day. I need to remember what it was like to be afraid or ashamed or embarrassed or hesitant.
The assignment for this lesson is to write an essay about a memory from when I was:
- Deeply embarrassed.
- Regretful of something I did.
- Extremely sad.
- Afraid to talk about something.
I have a honey of a story for each of these, but the one that stands out strongly in my memory now that I’ve recovered it from its shallow grave is really packed with all four of them.
So here we go:
Right before I started 5th grade, IBM transferred us from Texas to central New Jersey. My father, who grew up on a farm in Kansas, had chafed against the straitened, crowded life in the suburbs back in Houston so when we got to New Jersey he bought us a house in the sparsely populated country.
I was very lonely. There were few children my age within range and, truth told, I didn’t like them very much. I was a hyperactive wild hare of boy, completely and utterly guileless, likely to believe anything I was told and often irrationally angry.
I spent a lot of time by myself reading. I’ve often thought that my desire to become a writer is rooted in this time when I spent so many hours with books from my father’s paperback science fiction library. For those three years, I was an obsessive reader and a relentless student of human nature as I reveled in the adventures spun by Robert Heinlein and studied my peers like a scientist trying discover the nature of friendship.
We lived on an acre of land that backed to a pine grove, beyond which was the stream that led to the mill pond where we skated in winter. Beyond teh stream was a hill that the locals referred to as a mountain. It was all very green and the air was fresh and free of the heavy humidity we had known in Houston.
One day at the late end of the spring thaw when everything was wet and smelled of damp hay and the grass was just greening and the trees beginning to leaf out, I came across a downed bird’s nest with its five tiny eggs intact.
Being a ten year old boy, it took no time for me to decide to pick it up and take it to my bedroom in the basement. When you’re a boy with two sisters, they put your room as far away from everyone else as possible, an arrangement that provided the privacy I needed to sit and stare at the nest and the eggs and wonder.
I had very little furniture in my room; a bed, a dresser, and a desk, no closet. On my desk was a study lamp with an incandescent bulb that got so hot it had burned me several times. So I put the nest on my desk and bent the lamp’s articulated arm until the bulb was just above the eggs. Not too close, I reasoned, because I didn’t want to cook them.
What did I want? I wanted to know. That was pretty much my motive in everything I did at that age. I read books because I wanted to know what the future was going to be like. I watched the other kids because their ease with one another was a mystery to me. I watched my mother cook and my father build an elaborate rose garden because I wanted to know.
The wind must have blown that nest out of the tree just moments before the chicks were ready to hatch because when I came down after dinner the shells were already cracking open. I stood there affixed to the spot by a sense of wonder and horror commingled into a mixture we wouldn’t even be able to name for another five years: Fear and loathing.
With the dread fascination of someone watching a train plow into a station wagon full of screaming children, I looked on as five monstrous heads burst through the shells and opened Lovecraftian beaks that seemed bigger than their little, squirming bodies and cried to be fed.
That was when the foolishness of my decision finally occurred to me. I had been dawdling with no mind for consequences when I initiated the action that ended with five hungry baby birds in my basement room and me with no way to feed them.
I panicked, because that’s what I do. I’m not good under stress, not as a child and not as a man, and my first instinct is often the most terribly incorrect one. Given a moment to calm down, I can usually do the right thing, but I was too young and there was no time.
Sweeping up the nest as I bolted my room, I charged up the stairs and out of the house and… put it under the back porch. Why? I don’t know. To get it out of sight, I think. To be done with it. Though I wouldn’t be done with that nest or those chicks for years.
I returned to my bed, wrapped my arms around my knees, and shuddered with the rage of shame, the embarrassment of being the stupid boy again, and vowed to keep the whole incident a forever secret. After that, I lived in fear that my father would hear the birds and find them and want to know what happened and then terrible punishments would be rained down on me.
And I felt I deserved all of them. For years, that nest of horrors appeared over and over in my nightmares. I carried the secret with me wrapped in a quilt of shame. I never told anyone. But I also never forgot I did it.
Now, of course, I realize an unsupervised ten-year-old is bound to make such bad decisions and those birds were going to die anyway what with their nest being on the ground, but the world is a much bigger place when you’re a child and everything seems of enormous importance. The impact that simple mistake had on me shows up even today in the pitiless way I treat myself when I do something stupid. It’s the reenactment of what I thought I deserved on that day way back in lonely New Jersey.
And that is the story of the birds.