When I was young, I loved the library. I would check out as many books as I could find and bring them home. I would read just about anything -- history, biography, science, mysteries, fantasy, science fiction -- but what I loved most was books about writing. I soon learned that the 808 section of the Dewey Decimal System was my home -- and especially 808.3. I would check out everything I could find. I had the old Writer's Handbook volumes published by The Writer Magazine, with their articles by famous writers. I had Dean Koontz’s book Writing Popular Fiction long before he was famous. Every month I got Writer's Digest, and for my birthday each year my parents would buy me the new Writer's Market. I could spend hours on my bed just leafing through that book, marveling at all the different kinds of publications and imagining what I might write for them.
(It may just be the rosy glasses of hindsight, but I remember WD as a very different magazine back then than it is today. Lawrence Block wrote a monthly column on fiction and Judson Jerome wrote about poetry. Those columns seemed almost inexhaustible to me. Nowadays, when I break down out of nostalgia or boredom and buy an issue, it just seems shallow and commercial -- filled with ads for their seminars and editing services -- and recycling the same advice I read as a kid, in much less entertaining fashion. I'd like to think that, for someone coming to the magazine fresh today, it's as exciting and valuable as it was for me. But somehow, I don't believe it.)
One year -- I must have been in the sixth of seventh grade, what would be called a tween today -- my family spent a week at a lake house that belonged to a friend of my mother. This isn't the place to get into my mother's "special friendships" and the weirdness that entailed for a young boy. It's enough to say the house belonged to someone she knew from the tiny private airport where she worked. She worked there to pay for her flying lessons. My mother was a pilot. In the mid-seventies in South Carolina my divorced mother was a college student (in philosophy) and a pilot. I remember that we flew out to the lake in a small seaplane. It could seat six people I think, but there was only my mother, her boss from the airport, and my brother and me. We came in low over the lake, and when the pontoons hit there was a jolt, then a hop, another jolt, and we were gliding smoothly across the surface of the water.
(The seaplane reminds me of my father, who was not with us, because my father was a water skier -- pontoons look like big skis -- and when he was young he could start off sitting at the dock and ski all around the lake until he finally let go of the rope and glided easily into shore -- never once going into the water. That was on a different lake.)
That summer I had a lot of books with me. I had Forester's Aspects of the Novel and a big Writer's Handbook filled with articles by writers who, even then, were mostly a decade in the past. I sat out on the deck of the house and read watched the lake. I read about point of view and characterization and plot. And every couple of pages I would lay the book down -- or just hold it with one finger marking my place -- and daydream stories in my head.
That summer, for some reason, I was thinking of sea turtles. Aquatic turtles that lived underwater. In addition to my writing books, I almost certainly had books with me about wildlife and books about dinosaurs. Those were my other obsessions. I was imagining a novel about turtles. It didn't seem at all odd to me that you could write great literature -- serious literature -- and it could be about animals. I loved Watership Down. I don't remember what the turtles in my imagined story were doing, but I have images of them swimming deep down beneath the water -- beneath blue green water, and on the sandy bottom there were old bottles, sunken boats (the lake wasn't big enough for ships), and the ruins of collapsed piers.
When I was even younger, my parents and I were walking on a pier one day -- I think this might have been at Myrtle Beach -- and it collapsed underneath us. It's one of those events that I don't so much remember as I remember others remembering it. But I think the sense of it stayed in my bones, because I dreamt once of swimming underneath a low pier, being trapped underneath it, and finding that I could miraculously breathe through the water. I've never been really comfortable in deep water.
To this day, books about writing are my favorite books. Last year I kept John Gardner's The Art of Fiction by my bed and read a couple of pages every night before I went to sleep. I know Gardner's book almost by heart, but I found it very comforting, as if an old friend was talking to me as I fall asleep. Fiction, he says, should be like a vivid, unbroken dream -- first in the writer's mind, and then in the mind of the reader. Like a seaplane, I imagine, coming in for a landing on a large, still lake on a summer evening, racing to catch up with its reflection, and merging with it. Like a turtle paddling down to the sandy bottom. Like discovering you can breathe underwater.