As a young boy I watched my father take a chunk of wood and hold it in his calloused hands. Others would see it for what it was: a throw-away piece of wood. My father saw something more, something hidden below the surface.
He’d analyze the wood, examining it for imperfections or knots and turn it over-and-over in his hands. When he was finally satisfied, he put the piece of wood down on the table and outline in pencil a rough image of a mallard duck; a bloodhound sniffing the ground; or, more often than not, a hobo, carrying a sack. The image wouldn’t have much detail, but he’d be sure to include enough so that you could make out the general shape and design. He would then pull out of the front pocket of his shirt a small chisel or more often than not, a small pocketknife. He bought the knife from a five-and-dime store years earlier when he was a young man and the knife showed years of use. He’d open the blade and start by sharpening it against a sharpening stone until he could easily shave away fine hairs on his forearm. And then and only then, when everything was just perfect, he’d make his first cut.
Cut by cut
In a steady rhythmic fashion, my father would carve off small flakes of wood. The wood chips would roll down his hands, falling haphazardly onto his shirt and the table and often times onto the floor. Most times, my usually chatty father would say little while he worked. He’d look down, deep in thought, and take one smooth, deliberate cut after another, using his hands to easily slice through the slab of wood. The flakes would pile high into little mountains. And after an hour or so, depending on the size of the wood block, you’d begin to make out the beginnings of a face or a pair of arms or legs. With each cut, the image became crisper and clearer, until you saw a somber sea captain starring back at you. From nothing, came something.
I never learned how to carve wood like my father. He didn’t like us kids playing with sharp knives. He said his knives were ours to be used when we were older. Despite his stern warnings, I would occasionally sneak into our basement where he kept most of his carving tools and designs and try to carve something out of a stray block of wood I found lying in a nearby woodpile. I’d take a few child-like strokes and then give up as soon as I had started, racing back outside to play catch in the sun or upstairs to watch Saturday morning cartoons. I didn’t have the strength to cut through the wood or the patience to see it through to completion. I couldn’t envision where one small cut mixed together with another and another and another would take me.
Carving out my own path
So early on, I gave up any thoughts of carving or becoming an expert carpenter or craftsman like my father, but I soon found out that I could create bold, striking characters and images like him in other — unique — ways. I rejoiced in knowing that I too with a few broad strokes here or there, albeit in a different format, could create something from nothing.
In the third grade, I learned that I could write.
Like my father, the images came from the deep recesses of my mind. I’d stare down at a blank piece of paper, twirling my pencil in my hand, round-and-round, until I could see exactly in my mind’s eye what I wanted to put down on paper. And when the moment came and I was ready to put pencil to paper, my hand raced to get everything down. The words jumped out of my head. Some of them I kept, others I erased in a flurry of eraser dust. I’d add image-upon-image, word-upon-word, until like my father, you could start to see something take shape on the page. I viewed the process like a giant puzzle board. I’d fit a piece here, fit a piece there until I looked down and had a story full of imagery and context.
Stories all my own
In my world, I controlled everything. I put the winning run on third base with two outs and everyone looking at the batter. I created magical, mystical lands with heroic knights and fiery dragons. I wrote about my dog, Snoopy, and his “super-secret superpowers” and whatever else popped into my head. Snoopy, a smallish black toy terrier-fox terrier mix with deep, dark eyes, was more interested in sleeping and getting her next meal than becoming the next “Lassie,” but that didn’t matter. I was the one in charge.
While many of my friends and fellow classmates struggled or were bored with our school writing assignments, I smiled quietly to myself. I enjoyed the experience and looked forward to more opportunities to explore my imagination. I could let my mind run wild and be rewarded for it.
The power of the pen
My writing gave me freedom. When I was writing, I wasn’t the smallest, or the poorest, or the shyest kid in the class anymore. I could get lost in my writing. I could scale tall buildings like Spiderman or I could see for myself what it was like to have the strength of the Incredible Hulk.
In the simplest terms, I was a hero and could go anywhere, anyplace that I wanted. I could communicate my thoughts and ideas — yes, my very own — and not have to stutter or stammer my way through the answer to a question. I could say what I wanted to say — on paper.
My writing gave me confidence. My writing let me be me.
I’ve changed a great deal in years since the time I first started writing — I’m a husband and father with three kids of my own — but I write now for many of the same reasons. I write to know myself better. I write to touch others. I write to be me.