I'm out on assignment which might explain the slight lag between posts -- well, there's the assignment and there was the awful case of stomach flu I endured the other night. I thought about giving you a blow-by-blow account of the stomach flu but decided that might be stretching our writer-reader relationship a bit. Several posts -- about NFL players, about the Pro Bowl, about the Angels outfield -- are lining up. For now, a quick post about writing ... and a single word.
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Lately, it seems, quite a few people have asked how I became a writer. It is an awkward question to answer because the premise is that I became a writer, and there's something about that word that still feels a little bit distant. Am I a writer? Me? It reminds me of when I was 24 or 25 years old, and I was a columnist at The Augusta Chronicle, and a little boy walked up to me at a ballgame to ask for my autograph. I was entirely sure he had me confused for someone else, and I said (gently, I thought), "Oh, you don't want my autograph." Of course, the boy broke out into tears -- suddenly I had turned into one of those jerks would wouldn't give a little kid an autograph -- and I think I gave him an autograph, bought him some cotton candy, gave him a piggy back ride, put money into his college education, anything I could think of to make up for my own stupid self-awareness problem.*
*It only now occurred to me that this was probably 20 or so years ago, and the boy was probably 8 or 9 years old ... which would obviously make him 28 or 29 years old now. So there's a 28 or 29 year-old man out there somewhere who remembers the time that he asked for a simple autograph from the nobody local sports columnist and was initially rebuffed ...
Ever since then, whenever someone has asked me for an autograph I have enthusiastically signed it as if it felt normal ... but that feeling of "You are confusing me for someone else" has never faded. And so it is when people ask about me being a writer. I don't think of this as modesty, exactly. It's more like a constant crisis of self confidence. I never feel more than a few minutes away from someone official calling me up and saying: "Um, listen, we let this sportswriting gig go on long enough. It's time for you to start working for a living."
So, how did I become a writer? Not once in my childhood -- not a single time in memory -- did I ever have anyone tell me I had any talent for writing. This wasn't for want of good literary scouting; I am quite sure I never showed any talent. I did not like writing. I hear stories all the time of journalists and authors who have always known of their destinies, who started a family newspaper when they were 2 1/2 years old or who finished their first novel at the age of 7. I saw writing, any kind of writing, as a chore and a bore, and I didn't do any except in mandatory situations like when I had to write reports with fascinating and cheery themes like "Ohio: The Buckeye State" or "The Aztecs: Ahead of their time."
Still, the question has been asked enough times lately that I have asked myself: How? There had to be something in my childhood, some sign that I would someday write 4,000-word essays on Snuggies and the baseball Hall of Fame, that I would actually write books and columns for great American newspapers and stories for Sports Illustrated, for crying out loud.
My parents, I have mentioned a few times, were born in the former Soviet Union. They each moved around as children, each living colorful lives, and they came to America just three years before I was born. This gave me a pretty unique perspective, I suppose. At the time, it largely felt like they simply couldn't understand how important it was for me to get the cool Reeboks rather than the vastly cheaper generic sneakers I usually ended up getting.
What I could not have seen at the time was that my parents, especially my mother, loved the English language in a way that was probably quite different from people who had grown up with it. My mother had studied English before she came to America, and she really made the critical decision to only speak English around me. They each spoke four languages and a bit of a fifth, and English was the last language they learned and even now, almost 50 years later, they each speak English adeptly but with thick accents that I forget about until some stranger tries to guess where they are from.*
*This happens all the time. But people never come even close to guessing -- it's quite comical, actually, to watch people try to play this "Guess the country" state fair game. Greece is by far the No. 1 guess. But through the years I've heard Germany, the Czech Republic and, my favorite, Brazil.
Despite this, they only spoke English at home. My Mom has always said that they just wanted to be sure that I -- and later my brothers -- understood the language. She and my father had moved around enough to deal with language barriers. They did not want any confusion. My mother undoubtedly wanted to raise a doctor or a lawyer, the great American dream, but she would read to me daily. I think back at how much she read to me -- it's quite staggering. We read all sorts of books together. We read all the kids books, of course, but we also read Agatha Christie mysteries, and the Diary of Anne Frank, and Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Moby Dick, and the Judy Blume collection and various other classics and many, many other books. My mother loved to read, and I think she wanted me to love to read. My mother loved movies, and I think she wanted me to love movies. I don't think it had much to do with writing. I'm quite sure it had nothing to do with writing. But I don't now that either of us understood then how closely reading and listening and writing really are.
In any case, I remember one moment in particular. It was the day my mother was telling me about the most beautiful word. I was probably in the second or third grade, and we all had to write poems or essays for some kind of school magazine. I brought home the magazine and, as always, I don't remember any particular comment about the story I wrote (assuming mine made the magazine -- I don't remember ... I'm sure I got a parental "very nice job"). Anyway one of my classmates wrote an essay that my mother particularly likes. He had used the word, and I can still remember my mother saying: "You know what word is beautiful?"
"The word "For."
"No. For. The word 'for' is a beautiful word. 'For she was heartbroken.' 'For he had not realized how much he loved her.' The word 'for" if used right is really a beautiful word."
Of course, our conversation was not like this word-for-word -- this was 35 years ago at least. But it was probably pretty close. The memory is strong. I never quite forgot it. I had never thought that words could be beautiful, not before that conversation. And I probably didn't think that words could be beautiful after that conversation either. But something stuck with me, something about the way my mother said that. "You know what word is beautiful?" Something kind of clicked with me, I think; it was a whole other way of looking at words. And over time I was start to think about that, how words sound together, how the pacing of language and how the velocity and tempo can create layers of meaning, the staggering power of the simplest words. That power of those simple words could be like the power of simple-looking chess movies or short right crosses or quick Mike Schmidt/Bob Horner baseball swings.
I don't know that I have ever used the word "for" in its poetic and literary form, to mean "because" or "since" but my mother's tastes have always run a bit more Victorian than my own and anyway I can hear why the words sounded so beautiful to her. I guess, in the end, I don't know how I became a writer. I simply can't think that way. But I do know that without realizing it my mother raised me as one, for she loved words, even the smallest ones, and without realizing it she passed that love to her oldest son.