The day I got the yellow mechanical pencil was the day I became committed to being a writer. I had known I was a writer since I was eight when I wrote my first story, and known it again at twelve when I won my first national award. Neither time was I happy to discover it, nor were my parents. My father was an English professor who dreaded writing; my mother’s favorite line was “I could have been a Dostoyevki.” They were fascinated by and resentful of writers and romanticized the profession. This wasn’t the world I wanted to be consumed by:
My mother clearing her throat while she read detective stories and ate radish sandwiches at two in the morning. My father and his sad scramblings for footnotes and hesitant remarks about the Miller’s Tale or the enigmatic role of the church in the Middle Ages. The cozy intimacy of faculty parties where people talked about fiction as though it were there for the sake of interpretation and time flowed in one direction and characters had motives. Famous full-of-themselves-drunk-people staring at me over punch bowls.
I also knew that writers were just one of many animals in the world—and others seemed more romantic to me: A philosopher-logician animal. A linguist-phoneticist animal. An Akkadian-scholar animal.
And yet, even though I wrote an honors thesis in philosophy of science and worked with borderlines and studied phonetics, I could only be what I was--a writer-animal, chomping on experiences and turning them over after they happened as well as catching things while they happened and always having the feeling that something was left over from this catching that could only be disgorged by finding a way to write about it. No doubt I was hard-wired for this: I have kinesthetic-visual memories from before I could talk and remember learning words and seeing language wrap around whatever thing the word belonged to. From the time I was seven or eight, I had an office in my head that recorded what was happening. In other words, I collected all those things that writers collect in an interior silo. So the only question was whether to give into it or try to live in a pasture with animals that didn’t need to do that.
When I bought the yellow pencil I was living on West End Avenue and had just decided to get out of philosophy because William Blake had convinced me that philosophy was entangled in dualism. It was after a bad break-up with someone I envied because he had surrendered to the kind of animal he was. I was lonely, practiced Zen by myself, sometimes took LSD alone and then went to bodegas at night and looked at the plantains which were discrete and amazing in the acid light. I also walked. No matter where I walked, New York always rose up to meet me. It mirrored melancholy, desperation, joy, ecstacy, fear, romance. Sometimes I walked a few miles a day, thinking I would take the next subway or catch a bus, and never bothering.
The day I got the yellow pencil I was on Broadway near a stationery store. It was a sudden decision—I didn’t need a pencil. Yet I decided to get a transparent yellow plastic mechanical pencil. A slightly florescent yellow, with a tinge of green. Perhaps my least favorite color. Getting a distasteful color was a deliberate choice. I walked out of the store, put the yellow pencilin back of my ear and kept on walking.
A small thing, a yellow pencil. But it was with that pencil that I committed myself to admitting that I was a writer. I wouldn’t be a scientist of the fourth dimension. I wouldn’t go to Iceland to study linguistics. I would be an animal who trucked in a different kind of artifice.
Furthermore, because I had always been a fiction writer and some of it was bound to be narrative, I wasn’t going to argue about the existence of time. I would be condemned to deal with the popular naïve view of linear time and the great grinding gears of cause and effect that Hume said came from misunderstood repetitions. I would also be a thief, a traveler, a magician, even a traitor to my friends, because whatever was leftover went into the silo.
Why, then, did a yellow plastic mechanical pencil signal a surrender to being a writer? Because I was committing myself to being willing to experience the distasteful, the unexpected, the non-characteristic—and travel beyond my comfort zone. I was commiting myself to turn my life and myself inside out like a sock and write about it. False claims. Furious lovers. Sex. Secrets--my own and other peoples’. And the weird pneumatic tube of the imagination.
I walked down Broadway until I got to a Greek diner on the corner of 86th and Broadway I had never been to. I sat at the counter, and ordered eggs. Behind the counter, in front a mirror, were about ten small boxes of different cereals, draped on either side by a Greek and American flag. I wrote down the name of every cereal while the guys behind the counter joked with me. There were better restaurants on Broadway. But for a whole year I went there once a week. Later I found out that the Yiddish writer I.B. Singer, who had won the Nobel Prize, ate breakfast here every day. No doubt it was a coincidence. I didn’t know what he looked like and I never ran into him.
The more the writer-animal emerged the more I bowed to St. Christopher, the patron saint of writers, travelers and thieves. I became a thief because I had to steal from all corners of experience. I became a traveler because I had to wander--in the world of sidewalks and trees and parties and in my imagination. Sometimes I let people tell me stories I was sure weren’t any of my business because I was curious. And I wrote about my family—of my mother eating radish sandwiches late at night and saying, “ I could have been a Dostoyevski.” Of my father, unable to write his thesis and making strange, hesitant statements about literature.
I became a thief and a a traveler because that is what writer-animals have to do to get fodder.
And eventually lost the yellow pencil.
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