The Writer’s Community
When I was a little boy, my father, a carpenter, would take me to work with him. He brought me along because my mother worked full-time as a cleaning lady and when I went with her I invariably broke things or was too loud and rambunctious for the old rich ladies, so my father often got me. Later, when I was older he took me, ostensibly, to have me learn his craft, as well as to help him with the heavy work of carrying boards, nailing sheetrock, digging footings, or lugging asphalt roofing shingles up precarious ladders onto roofs.
He paid me a dollar an hour, and even at this miserable rate, I wasn’t particularly worth it, wasn’t very skilled at, nor interested in, the craft of carpentry, nor was I particularly hard-working. Still, he continued to take me along even when I was big enough to stay home alone, even when there wasn’t much work for one body, let alone two. I would much preferred to have stayed home. The days with my father were long and depending on the season, either numbingly cold or brutally hot. Moreover, my father was normally a gruff and taciturn man, a man of dark and moody ghosts, one not given to light and amiable chit-chat. Given all of that, the days would have been unbearable—if not for one thing: when the mood struck—or more precisely, when he’d had a few drinks in him—my father told interesting stories, wild, often heroic tales with himself normally the protagonist.
Some would have called his stories exaggerations of fact, others, namely my mother, would have deemed them boldface lies. Having been raised on a farm in the great north woods of Vermont, he fashioned rough-hewn tales that were nothing short of Bunyanesque. Filled with magic and hyperbole, near-death escapes and heroic feats of daring-do, and just as often with slap-stick comedy or large philosophical ponderings–his tales thrilled a young boy of ten. During the day, as he imbibed from a pint bottle he kept handily in his back pocket, the tall tales grew even taller, the exaggeration even more bold.
I recall one story he told repeatedly. How as a young boy himself, growing up on a farm, he had once had a near-fatal confrontation with an ornery thousand-pound boar—that is, a male pig—a creature with whom he’d had several previous run-ins. On this particular day—and my father, like any good story-teller, normally began his tales in media res–as he went to feed the pig, the animal had somehow leapt over his pen and charged my father, clearly bent on tearing him limb from limb and tossing him headlong into Hades. Like Hercules against the Erimanthian boar, my father prepared to do battle. He described the epic struggle to me in vivid detail, using lengthy Homeric similes–how the huge creature had borne down on him—his red swine-eyes ablaze, his enormous, razor-sharp tusks menacing, even the foul stench of his breath. But in the nick of time—there were always “nicks of time” in my father’s stories—he was able to pick up a handy sledge hammer (which just happened to be lying nearby) and bludgeon the animal across the skull. Whereupon the beast dropped down on the ground, seemingly as dead as if he’d been felled by Achilles himself.
“You killed it?” I asked, incredulous. I stood there, my own hammer in hand, waiting for the denouement.
“Naw. Just knocked the stupid bastard colder’n a mackerel. He got up in a few minutes. But let me tell you, he was meek as a pussy cat after that.”
My father had an entire repertoire of similar tales, tales often heroic, sometimes comic or tragic, always riveting—wild stories about his surviving a near drowning while working on a bridge, about once hitting a home run off Babe Ruth during a Sunday exhibit game back in the Blue Laws days in the twenties. And on and on. Whenever I’d go to work with him, he’d regale me with such tales. I soon grew to realize that he was not only skilled at story telling, he loved it; while carpentry was his vocation, story-telling was his avocation, his craft, his métier, in fact, his true love. In the same way he could make a saw sing or hammer perform magic, he could arrange words into a gleaming work of art. As well, I came to realize my role in his story-telling. I was more than mere company or hired help; I was his audience, his muse, his community. He never really needed me to come to work, I realized. He wanted me there mostly so that I could listen to his stories.
But I was just the warm-up act, his off-Broadway fine tuning. The real performance was to follow. After work, carpentry being a very dusty and thirst-inducing trade, my father would stop at one of his favorite gin-mills. I would accompany him inside, whereupon several men would invariably call out, “Wes, what are you drinking?” And someone else would cry, “Wes, tell us a story.” Like a wandering troubadour of old who sang for his meals, my father, in exchange for a shot and a beer, would then launch into telling many of the same stories I’d heard countless times. I would watch as these grown men, rough-hewn, blue collar sorts like my father—the most unromantic, unartistic group you could imagine—these men listened to him in rapt attention. Like children being read to, they loved his tales, only equaled by my father’s love of telling them. These men cheered him on, laughing at the funny parts, sighing as he related the death of a favorite dog, on the edge of their barstools as he came to each stirring climax.
My father was clearly in his element, a part of this group, in a way that his normally lonely, isolated self wasn’t. He seemed to flower in his role as story-teller amongst them. As I sat there watching my father’s barroom performance, I came to realize two important things: The first was that I wanted one day to perform the same sort of magic. That is, I wanted to become a teller of tales, a spinner of yarns. I sensed, on some subliminal level, that I wanted to become a novelist. But the second, and equally important revelation, was that the artist, any artist, can’t function in isolation. He needs his audience, longs to find his fellowship, seeks, in short, his community.
It isn’t coincidental, I think, that the word “community” comes from communitas (cum, the root for “together” and munus meaning “gift”). Together and gift. Think about how that applies to any writing community. A coming together to offer and to share our gifts. A fellowship of common interests and passions, shared for the common good. In their book Communitas, by Paul and Percival Goodman, they define several kinds of communities, one of which revolves around artistic and creative pursuits, a coming together of artists for sake of offering and sharing their creative gifts. Supporting one another as each pursues not merely an artist goal, but an aesthetic life.
On not a few occasions, my father, upon leaving the bar, found himself in no condition to drive. So he’d hand the keys to me, or I would try to wrest them from him, and I, a fourteen-year-old boy, would chauffeur the tipsy Homer homeward. I recall one night he came staggering out of the bar, and I got behind the wheel of his Studebaker truck and off we went. I, who had learned to drive on a Massey-Harris tractor, both thrilled to be driving without a license and a bit terrified, too, that I might be pulled over by a cop, and both father and son thrown into jail, and subsequently into my mother’s doghouse. At this stage of his inebriation, my father’s stories morphed into boozy, Scottish ballads (he was half Scot) and maudlin sea shanties, with a line or two of Tennyson or Longfellow tossed in for high-brow literary merit. I recall one time, though, that my father remained silent most of the ride home. Finally, he glanced over at me and said, “Mike, those fellows back there,” meaning his bar-room cronies, “they’re a good bunch, you know.”
My father came to realize that he had found his community, a community in the most unlikely of places.