A student recently asked me, “Hey Mr. Armstrong, what do you think about before you write?”
I curved my eyebrows inward, adopted a deep, contemplative look, held a silence for a second too long and replied, “Words.”
The student rolled their their eyes, shook their head as if to say “Sorry I asked, you pretentious jerk” then turned away and moved on with their life.
Writers are often considered guarded, cantankerous folk. Often aloof and indifferent while sitting cross-legged in Starbucks, wearing tweed jackets and sporting wire-rimmed glasses.
So what do I think about before I write?
Well, I thought it might be interesting to unlocked that world for you. To share my mental geography. A geography I often disappear in while driving, coaching soccer, eating Golden Grahams, sitting through meetings or digesting the news that my 6 year old now knows the “f” word.
For me, the process is pretty simple. It involves a bar, Brenda, fried mushrooms and most importantly, you.
So, before I get more pretentious, let us go then…
You and I are at a bar. A local bar. A simple place with a simple name. Pat’s Pub or Mike’s Tavern. They serve American draft beers in thick handled mugs. The menu is limited to deep fried and pickled foods. The walls are dark wood paneled. The bartender’s name is Brenda. She is divorced, has a son in prison, a smoker’s cough and a faded rose tattoo on her forearm.
There is a pool table in one corner and a jukebox that plays mostly southern rock in the other. In the windows hang neon beer signs. Miller High Life. Coors Light. We are on our first beer and watching a 30 minute replay of Superbowl XXV on ESPN 2 when you ask me how I ‘m feeling. I tell you I have good days and bad days. I don’t tell you good days are when I don’t think about dying until lunch. I don’t tell you bad days begin when I think about dying before the coffee meets my morning mug. You ask what it’s called. Cerebellar Degeneration. You ask if there is a cure. No. You ask if the degeneration will stop on its own. Maybe. But the brain damage is permanent. You ask if I should be drinking beer. Probably not. You ask how I have been dealing with this. I drum my fingers on the bar. I want to cry. But I muscle it down. I look at you and smile and say I write stories. What kind of stories? My stories. Stories of my success and failure. Of my disease. Of my childhood and adulthood and fatherhood. Funny stories. Sad stories. Embarrassing stories. Stories to remind me that I’m still alive.
I take a drink.
The Buffalo Bills kick off under a burst of a million flashbulbs. You know some nights, when Cindy and the kids sleep, I sit at my computer and stare through the words and watch my life play out on the screen like a movie. Through stories we can make sense of the past which somehow alleviates the pain of the present. Because writing is easier then forgetting. Because writing is now a therapy for me. More than any pill I have been prescribed, I have found real, human comfort in the re-imagined past. It’s like each story I write is a puzzle piece to my life. But the healing power lies in the fact that I can dull or sharpen the edges to each piece to fit my design.
I take a swig of beer and squint at the TV. We watch Phil Simms march the Giants down the field on their opening drive and kick a field goal. Giants 3 Bills 0. When the TV cuts to commercial you ask if I would share some stories I’m writing. I’m flattered and a bit unprepared but we’re friends. Sure. You smile, motion to Brenda and order another round. I tell you that these stories are true. For the most part. memory is never completely accurate and that over time stories change shape. And with the fusion of time and repetition, and now alcohol, some of the facts may, at times, dissolve into fiction. I assert that I’m not a liar. I may inject hyperbole but that’s only for your entertainment. You concur. I remind you that you asked me to tell a story not report the news. You concur. I tell you that though I may bend the truth, the themes of the story are true. You tell me to stop being an English teacher.
We get our beers and you pick at your fried mushrooms. You take a drink and I tell you that stories are like bookmarks to our lives. Stories remind us of where we have been and how far we have to go. I tell you that when we retell a story the past collapses into the present. And when we experience that collapse, we can learn deep and profound things about ourselves. Stories inspire us…
You wave your hand.
You tell me to shut the fuck up and get on with it already. I don’t take offense. We are old friends remember. We’ve been telling each other to shut the fuck up for years. I smile. You smile. We both take a swig of beer. I put my mug down and clear my throat and look at you and smile and say, “Ok, here is a something I’ve never told anyone before…”