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As a kid I had no aspiration to be a writer. What I did have was an active imagination, an inner world where I was constantly inventing stories and scenarios for my own enjoyment.
Some of my earliest memories of this involved my mother’s bobby pins. Little Eric (we’re talking four to five years old) would hook two pins together at the top loops to create a figure with movable upper and lower extremities. If I was imagining a cowboy scenario involving a horse, one looped pin, manipulated by a thumb, was vertically moved back and forth over the floor while the other looped pin was held at a horizontal position across the back of the forefinger.
Of course, in my heated imagining I did not see bobby pins or a floor. The moving vertical pins were the galloping legs of horses (the pin tips the hooves), the horizontally held pins were the bodies of the horses, and the floor some desert earth being tossed into dust. The imagined dust was quite an imaginative leap when you consider that my favorite place to enact such dramas of bank robbers, cattle rustlers, and pursuing law men was under the pedestal bathroom sink on a landscape of white hexagonal tiles. The bathroom was on the second floor in the semidetached house in Morgan Park on the Far South Side of Chicago where I lived with my parents and two younger brothers. (Before it was all said and done in the procreation department, my parents would add two more children: another brother and finally, at long last, a sister.)
I always had a pair of looped pins for each hand, which allowed for chases of good guy after bad guy, with one of my hands set behind the other; or, if I wanted my riders to dismount for the inevitable face-to-face confrontation, I would stand looped pins up straight, grasped now at the looping point with thumb and forefinger, and move the figures around as people.
Lying on my stomach on the tiles that felt cool even in summer, I played out my story scenarios, which were always improvisational affairs, complete with dialogue, me alternating my speaking voice dependent on which of my characters was talking.
Although the bobby-pin thing stopped somewhere around the second grade, the fevered imaginings continued unabated. My novel, Bedrock Faith, is a direct result of the freewheeling creative tendencies I first allowed myself as a child. (When working on a story, I still, from time-to-time, in the privacy of my writing room, put down my pen or stop tapping the keyboard to speak character dialogue out loud.) I wrote the novel out of a desire to depict the world of working-class and middle-class African Americans on the Far South Side with the hope that if I did a good enough job of depicting the specificity of that world, I would get to the universal that any reader, regardless of class, culture, or color, would be able to see and understand.
But the writing also came from a personal desire. In an oft-printed quote, Toni Morison said she started writing the books she had always wanted to read and had never found in a library. Which is about the best advice any aspiring writing can get, and one that has guided me for many years.
That I was finally able to accomplish that is one of the reasons I’m so glad to share Bedrock Faith through Chicago Public Library’s One Book, One Chicago, a free, citywide literary program that brings Chicagoans together around a singular text. The selection has been as pleasurable as any I had when the book was first published seven years ago. I’m very much looking forward to engaging, through readings and interviews, with an even wider collection of readers. For in the end, for us writers, it’s not just about creating story for ourselves, it’s about connecting with an audience. And in this way, the storytelling is different from that of the child under the bathroom sink whose only pleasure was for himself.
To write a story, in my case a novel, the product of my artistic imagination, and through the static of ink on paper create a vehicle through which readers, using their artistic imaginations, can engage in the joint venture of story pleasure, is the greatest of pleasures.
Eric Charles May is an associate professor in Columbia College Chicago’s fiction writing program. His novel, Bedrock Faith, won Chicago Public Library’s 21st Century Award.
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