The Story of How I Become a Great Writer (a selection)

Luckily, this story begins not just with me but with my characters as well. Characters like Alfred, who you will undoubtedly fall in love with because Alfred is the type of character that people love.

Alfred is a young young man, and by that I mean a youngish man (he is 23) who is undeveloped in many ways. As you may imagine, this can be both a bad and a good thing. Bad because Alfred often finds himself in troublesome situations he could have avoided if it weren’t for his laziness and immaturity. Good because Alfred is able to look at life and see it for its beauties and possibilities without really knowing he is looking at life this way—in the way a young child or undeveloped 23-year old might.

In my story, I give concrete examples of this because though I don’t believe there are no ideas but in things, I do believe that things certainly help ideas hold onto the world. Also, I once heard that a good story is something you can hold in the palm of your hand and the phrase has since become one of my favorites. I like the image of it—of a hand opening and a story sitting there, resting in the palm, waiting for something. Or perhaps the story is not even waiting. Perhaps it is simply living and being.

Either way, I will open my hand now and give you a concrete example of the way Alfred looks at the world:

One day, while walking home from work through the campus, Alfred spots an old man in a blue coat. The old man bends over, picks up a leaf from the ground, twirls it between his fingers, smiles, and puts the leaf carefully into his pocket.

Many people would see this old man picking up this old leaf and think it was sweet. Many would leave it at that, or perhaps smile to themselves before moving on and going back their lives. But Alfred is not many people. Obviously because he is in this story. He is Alfred. He is my character. And my character Alfred walks up to the man and says,

“Pardon me sir, I don’t mean to disturb you, but I couldn’t help but notice as I was walking by that you picked up a leaf. I was wondering if I might look at it.”

And because the old man is nice (because he is in my story and I want him to be that way) he takes the leaf out of his pocket and shows it to Alfred.

And yes, it is a beautiful leaf. In fact, as far as Alfred is concerned, it is the most beautiful leaf he has ever seen .

“That is the most beautiful leaf I have ever seen,” Alfred tells the nice old man.

“It is pretty,” the nice old man tells him back, “but it’s probably only the fourteenth or fifteenth most beautiful leaf I’ve ever seen. I’d have to check to make sure.”

And then, obviously, Alfred asks the man what he means about checking and the man tells Alfred that he has been collecting fallen leafs since he retired in 1983. It has been twenty-six years now and after the seventh year the man started taking pictures of the leaves that were his favorites and saving them when he could. After very little conversation the two men decide to go back to the nice old man’s house to see his collection.

But by this point in the story, Alfred’s and mine, the nice old man isn’t just a nice old man anymore but a new character whose name is Thomas. Thomas, as it turns out, saves Alfred many times in many ways, and shows Alfred the most beautiful leaves the world has ever known.

Thomas, like the leaves he collects, blows through Alfred’s story. He weaves his way through it just like some other leaves I once read about that were called pestilence-stricken multitudes.  These leaves were the kinds of leaves that that were moved by things—wind, nature, and even time. These leaves spiraled, circulated, and traveled great distances before finally settling down somewhere they could be collected. Thomas’s thoughts and words are scattered in just this way throughout Alfred’s story. And Alfred, being who and what he is, listens to them—these scattered thoughts that move like leaves yet do not die, do not become stricken with pestilence, as long as there is someone to bend over, pick them up, twirl them between his fingers, and put them in his pocket.

This is precisely the type of thing that makes Alfred, Thomas, and this story so great.

Because Alfred doesn’t walk away after watching Thomas pick up that leaf. He doesn’t wait for Thomas to leave and then go look at the other leaves and search for a similar one—one that can give Alfred whatever it is that Thomas has that he does not. He doesn’t stand there after Thomas takes off and wonder what is it about a leaf that can make someone smile so. And he doesn’t even hold that memory with him years after, thinking about it, the simplicity of it—picking up a leaf. And yet the mystery of it too. Because, after all, why would someone pick up a leaf? And why that particular leaf? What sort of person picks up a leaf in that way? And what sort of life must that person have, that he can pick up a leaf and smile at it with such simple joy? Is the old man out of his mind or does he know something the rest of the world does not ? Is the old man stupid and simple or is the action? Or is it both?

Alfred does not think these things. That is not the sort of character Alfred is.

Instead, Alfred looks at the old man through his young young eyes and sees the possibilities, which are this:

  1. That the leaf is beautiful.
  2. That the leaf is ugly and the old man is beautiful for seeing the beauty in an ugly thing.
  3. That the leaf and the old man are both ugly, in which case the beauty is in two ugly things finding each other.

After seeing the possibilities Alfred decides to find out what the reality is. And, as it turns out, it isn’t any of the possibilities he came up with.  Yes, the leaf is beautiful (1) but the leaf is also more than that because the leaf is how Alfred and Thomas meet.  The beauty is in two things finding each other (which could be 3) but what types of things is harder to determine. And so you are left wondering what kinds of things just met—two ugly things or two beautiful things?

It’s the moments like this that make this story great. Because they are moments that do not get lost.

This is also how I become a great writer—by writing about great moments and maybe ugly, maybe beautiful characters like Alfred and Thomas. And also leaves.

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