Why do we get so wrapped up and passionate about books? It’s really a weird thing, when you think about it. These made up worlds and characters, the products of someone else’s imagination, become part of our DNA in a strange and magical way.
Have you ever known someone, or maybe you are this person, that wears a shirt or hat that tells you which Hogwarts house they belong to? As far as I can tell, Hogwarts is not a real place, and its respective houses don’t exist in this plane of existence, at least not in a tangible way. Where it does exist though is in our hearts and imaginations, and when done correctly, this kind of creation can become more than real. And that’s what’s important.
A writer is a special kind of creature. We wake up early because an idea won’t let go of us. Or we stay up late, staring at the ceiling because we’re terrified that if we close our eyes and drift off to sleep the person who is living out their life in our imagination will be lost to the ether, never to be recovered again. That’s a heavy burden to carry.
I host this podcast called Author Stories, and this show has allowed me to talk to a lot of writers. Over 200 of them. I try not to ask silly, trite questions, because I don’t like silly, trite questions, and as a writer myself, I like to think that I have a little bit more insight into the craft than an average reporter. One thing I know that annoys writers is when someone asks, “where do you get your ideas from”. Writers will tell you that ideas are a dime a dozen, and all you have to do is open your eyes and ears and ideas are all around you. But there’s a difference between an idea and when that spark happens and you find yourself along for the ride in someone else’s life. Sometimes it’s a complete accident, and sometimes I think that the story is born because we’re learning something about ourself.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have this happen to me a few times. Last year our family went through some difficult times. As a father, I found myself wrestling with emotions and feelings that I hoped I would never feel, yet there they were staring me in the face. Feelings of dread, overpowering fear, and pain have a way of hitting you between the eyes and disarming you when something is going on with your kids. You have to be strong and put on a brave face, but inside you’re a wreck.
Then along came a friend.
One day I was minding my own business when Stu Remington came into my life. I liked Stu immediately because I felt like we had a lot in common. He had an active imagination like me. He loved dogs, as evidenced by his constant companion, the slobbering, aloof bulldog he called Rolo. Stu also carried around a weight that I could relate to, but Stu’s was amplified far beyond anything I could imagine. Stu was a wreck, and he had good reason to be.
Stu was a successful writer, but the kind of guy that stayed humble in the midst of overwhelming success. He lived in a modest home in the same small town he’d always lived in. He knew all of his neighbors, supported the local ball team, donated to charities that helped the people of the town, and was a generally nice guy. But Stu was wrestling with some stuff, and I felt a bond with him. I didn’t meet Stu in the grocery store or at a social event. I met Stu in my imagination, and he quickly became one of my best friends.
I watched Stu as he struggled to break his severe case of writer’s block. He was behind a deadline that threatened to wreck his career. He was worried about letting more people down. He didn’t believe in the gift he had anymore, because as a writer, he felt like his gift had failed him. He knew he had the power to create whole worlds out of nothing, yet in his own back yard stood a rusty swing set that had been the place he and his daughter made so many memories. On the other side of the yard was a deck with a grill where he and his wife would talk and dream while he flipped burgers for his little family and their friends that loved that little yard too. That empty swing set came to represent failure to Stu where once it was a thing of joy. The constant reminder that he couldn’t save them became more than he could bear. Outside the window of his writing office stood the symbols that once meant happiness, but now only represented guilt.
When I met Stu I could feel my own pain and sense of hopelessness for the first time, and I could look it in the eye. Stu gave me a gift, and as I followed him around, I hope I did the same for him. I feel like we helped each other discover who we were during that time. I introduced him to some other characters that were living in the dusty corners of my brain. People like a bizarre old blues guitarist that had been dismissed by society named Waylon, an angel of sorts to be sure. Waylon challenged Stu in every imaginable way, and challenged how he saw the world. Those people are good for us.
I also introduced Stu to a single mother and her daughter. This couple of characters helped Stu see that sometimes helping someone else is the very best medicine for what’s going on in our lives. These two ladies showed Stu that some gifts are more important than the ones money can buy. Through Stu’s work, he had become a man of means, and when he met Debby and Ashley, he didn’t hesitate to throw the power of his wealth and influence into helping them find a solution to their problem. But as we discover sometimes, wealth and influence are of little importance to some situations.
These characters are real to me. Real in a way beyond Gandalf, Superman, or even characters that I’ve read time and time again. These people are real to me because we walked through something together, and when we got to the other side, I knew more about myself than I did in the beginning, and I know that I helped Stu do the same. Other people have read Stu’s story and have taken the time to write to me and tell me that Writer’s Block has meant something special to them. In the beginning when I said that stories become part of our DNA, I think this is why.
We become part of each other’s stories.
Bob Dylan famously told us that all we needed was three chords and the truth, but for some of us the instrument is a keyboard, and in today’s world truth is hard to come by. Truth told with compassion for each other, I believe, can change the world.
I am writing this as the sun comes up and my family are sleeping. Stu is okay now. I’m happy for him and we visit from time to time and catch up on life. But Stu has another journey to take now, and I’m happy for him. He didn’t leave me empty handed, though. He sent someone else to me, and at first I thought they needed my help, but as always, I discovered pretty quickly that we needed to teach each other a few things.
I’ll share that story with you soon enough. It’s a pretty great one.