Amnesia in the brain but not in my hands—my fingers remember the moves, remember my favorite words, even if I can’t bring them to mind. Interesting, the way a writer’s body works. To sit down to write, and feel my memories wiped, forgetting all that came before. Do photographers forget all the portraits they took in the past—yesterday, six hours ago, three minutes ago—not the images saved to hard drives, but those gathered in recollection? When I begin to write something new, it is as if I have never before tried. My body is certain of the next sentence; I am not.
What purpose does the amnesia serve? Let’s consider the cons, the negatives. One comes to mind immediately: fleeting confidence and lingering doubt—two sides of the same coin. It is no wonder writers struggle with confidence. With each new project, the previous successes fade. How can we trust ourselves? Trust that our skills will return? Trust that this blank document—this one, right now—won’t be our undoing? The previous essay I wrote won’t save me when the blank document stares, and the deadline looms, and the editor lurks, and the readers wait.
Never mind one’s belief or non-belief in writer’s block—the fact is, it happens. Something paralytic and insidious drives us mad and renders us mute; this force derides us daily, as writing time is whittled down. That writer’s block occurs at all is, however, harmless in and of itself. All the universe is a collection of finite resources, energy. Breaks are necessary and that’s okay.
Writer’s block means the muscle memory will soon forget. I often talk about the fact that from 2012 to 2014, I didn’t write, due to writer’s block. That’s not entirely accurate. I wrote. I wrote poorly. I wrote as if I never typed a word in my life, as if I never structured a short story or essay. The work was joyless—something I never felt before in regard to writing. Nothing I created was worth revising, to say nothing of publication. Half-finished stories and the skeletons of essays never built up past the shaky bones. It’s one thing to forget past successes when you sit down to write; over time, if writer’s block works itself into your organs, the paralysis metastasizes. You feel heavy. Fraudulent. Unable to churn out the simplest turn of phrases. You lose your hearing. The sound of the sentences, the cadence, is turned down. I write by sound; without the sound, I am nothing. I was nothing for two years.
I sit quietly before I get to work; the computer sits there, gawking with a wide, black-toothed sneer, waiting for me. Technology is to be used. Opening a new document—as I did twenty minutes ago on my phone so I can talk to you about this amnesia—is the only space where I safely meditate. Minutes or seconds before I write something new, I tell myself, “You’ve done this before.” Writing calls for a bit of faith; there is at times a mystical element to this work, something beyond me. I approach myself with faith in heart. I say, “You’ve done this before,” because the work feels new each time. The keyboard is a welcome sight—there is no other constellation in space and time that can guide me home.
At age six, I wrote my first story. Maybe I was seven. Or eight. My memories are relative to moments, and the people within them; this is how I locate myself through time, and because the years — from birth to age twelve — involved the same folks, my family, these memories have merged, mixed. I can’t locate myself exactly “at age six” but I can remember that it was around 1987, when my father brought home our first computer, a white word processor. More of a glorified typewriter than a personal computer, the machine was my first in-person introduction to technology, beyond the ubiquitous and increasingly boring television set.
I didn’t want to write on the word processor so much as I wanted to pilot the machine, to place my hands on the controls, to move the thing, direct it, just as my father did in the nights and days following its arrival.
But there was the matter of permission. The word processor was a new bauble in the house. Cherished and protected, it was my father’s tool, the one he used to power his way through night school to obtain his registered nursing license and, later, his bachelor’s degree. The machine’s location moved throughout the house: First it was in my sister’s bedroom, within her garish teal-colored walls and the brown shag carpet that spewed throughout our home; later, it landed in the far corner of the living room, on a hulking wood “computer desk” with a hutch that appeared heavy enough to have to be lowered by crane. (It was damn heavy, as I learned years later when I had to help my father move it.)
By the time it made its way to the living room, I finally asked my father to use it. “I want to write a story,” was the reason I offered.
My father appeared surprisingly more amused than annoyed, revealing a subtle smirk, the one I’ve inherited, conveying curiosity and bemusement as though I challenged him, or chose to challenge myself, and he, in agreeing to provide only the basic, requested assistance, was excited to see the results, one way or another. My father, in quietude, demanded self-sufficiency, and I was uneven in response, as are most children. Sometimes I wanted to write a story, independent of him, and sometimes I can’t carry the weight, and I need my dad.
I sat in the large leather office chair, one of those thrones a child can spin around in, as he walked me through the steps. Flip the switch located in the back. Wait for the screen to illuminate with its black background and white, blocky typography. Pop in a blank floppy disk—it might’ve been labeled for me, to avoid a mix-up with my father’s disks. Tap. Tap. Tap. There was no mouse, so I navigated through the menus via the keyboard. Tap. Tap. Tap. Finally, I was confronted with my first onscreen blank page.
“Just hit ‘save’ when you’re done,” was his departing advice.
There was no terror in the face of the blank page. Why would I feel terror? My state of mind then is one I try to remember now: to dive into something new, something unexpected, liberated by the unknown as opposed to being fearful of it. It’s not so simple now. I am fearful because I’m full of both knowledge and experience, and I confuse this with clairvoyance. As though I can predict the next second because I’ve experienced, and remember, the previous second. This isn’t the case with children. They are incredibly brave souls, mostly out of ignorance, but brave nonetheless. I don’t know if I was brave when I first sat down to write. I had nothing to fear; I wasn’t even aware of my own fearlessness. Only the open door in front of me, the entrance into some new world where I could conjure, make manifest.
Up until then, I’d written longhand. But this act was reserved solely for schoolwork, primarily because writing longhand was uncomfortable to me. I never did learn the proper way to hold a pencil; even now, there is a small callous on my right middle finger, indicating where I lazily apply pressure to a writing instrument. Creative writing, for me, was married to technology from the beginning.
Unlike the tedious, painful exercise of writing by hand, the keyboard allowed for velocity, which seemed in line with the speed of my thoughts. I typed without stopping, without thinking about the next word, the plotline. It’s a habit I haven’t eliminated, but rather adopted into my “style,” if you will.
While I’d like to act as though my first story was a sign of some latent genius, it was merely the story of a six (or seven or eight) year old boy, one with a growing fascination with death. Nothing like suicidal ideation, or the pathological craving to harm animals, but death as an object, as a state of being. Or an un-state of being. Or a state of un-being. I thought about death as I understood it, as life and my parents and television presented it. Only the old died. Only the criminal shot by a policeman’s bullet died. Maybe a sad, sick child stricken with leukemia died, but this was rare (or so I thought). I sat down in front of that word processor, and I wrote about death without fearing death, or writing. I miss that ignorance. I wrote about a man dying in his bed; I wrote about a man waking up from death, or returning to life. I no longer have the story to review and tear apart with my adult intellect, which is for the best.
Death was, to me, a kind of sleep. I had experienced sleep, and the accompanying return to consciousness. Maybe death was the same way. I didn’t give it much thought. I typed as if I knew all I needed to know. I would do well to jot that down on a Post-it note to affix to my laptop monitor now. I knew nothing, but knew everything, knew all a writer needs to know to get to work: an idea, and some command of his native language. Writing with a computer had turned off the churning in my mind, autopilot activated.
Being unable to touch type, or being unaware of such a method as touch typing, I pecked at the keyboard with one finger, then two or maybe three fingers. Even now, I still type a similar way. I stab at a button on the keyboard, trusting that the letter I want is the letter that will appear instantaneously on the screen. I am often wrong, and I often wonder if my method lends to overuse of certain words, certain sounds. C is easy to reach, as is W and R and I . I. I. I. Q is a little difficult, and Z is the hardest, but I use Z seldom unless I’m typing “zenith” or “zeitgeist” or “zoo” or “zygote”—but when would I have an occasion to use “zygote,” unless I’m thinking of “pregnancy” or “conception” or “love” or “fuck” or “bone”? Even then, “zygote” is a specific stage of reproduction, a particular stage in cellular splits, so unless I’m writing about biology and therefore need to type some official words as if I know what I’m talking about, “zygote” seems heavy-handed. But that’s what revision is for.
When I finished the story, I got up from the spinning chair and fetched my father, who then showed me how to use the printer. An ungodly sight of white plastic, with black levers to lift and lower the paper feed, the printer was loud, and it shook the desk, an amazing feat given the wood furniture’s girth and mass. My father showed me how to load the paper—incredibly thin, more so than the typical reams of paper you’d find now in offices or libraries or homes—and he pointed as I tapped this key, that key, moved from menu to menu to get to the “Print” function (after I saved, of course). When the printer started, I watched it work.
The printer acted like an automatic typewriter: You wrote whatever you needed to write on the keyboard and monitor, saved it to the floppy disk, transmitted the document electronically from the CPU to the printer, and then watched the lettered hammers slam into the paper with great speed. The printer automatically moved the page up and up, the line spacing previously determined by settings via the CPU. I sometimes still watch as I wait for my documents, but watching the printer isn’t as fulfilling. There are no hammers slamming into paper. There is no violence committed to the paper. There is, as far as I can tell, no physicality involved.
Lacking a flair for titular theatrics, and decades away from “high literary aesthetics,” I named the story based on the story itself: A Man Died, and Came Back Alive. Perhaps a child’s mind produces titles similar to the clickbait headlines we find online today. I showed the final product, the piece of paper bruised by the hammers, to my father. He sat on the sofa, maybe watching television or flipping through one of his incomprehensible medical journals. I handed him the story and I left the room. I still like to leave the room when someone reads my work; I was even then on guard for humiliation, for rejection. Maybe if I waited in another room, I would be spared the plunge of criticism, that icy cold blade, serrated to perfection, piercing my skin.
Amnesia, again. I don’t remember whether or not my father liked the story. This blank spot in my mind brings about a bit of spasm in my stomach. Maybe he hated it, and I have repressed the memory. Entirely possible. It is also likely—more so—that the event was unremarkable. A pat on the head, perhaps. “This is good,” he could’ve said with artificial exuberance, the high-pitched tone of voice we save for children who look up to us, literally, waiting with outstretched palms for the necessary word, the beautiful affirmation, the sweetest validation. More than anyone else, I wanted the approval of my father. I can’t explain why, beyond some genetic, perhaps primordial need to have this one man push me forward, to let me know that things were okay, that the work I created was worthy of his praise.
Because I can’t remember his reaction, and I won’t ask him, I can only go on what can be sussed out when I sift through more memories. Prior to 2015, I hardly shared my work with my father, or anyone in my family. I chose to keep my work away from him. It’s safe to assume that, whatever his reaction to my first story, I needed more. That his reaction was unsatisfactory to me.
But how does a six-year-old boy tell his father to love him better, to give him more? What is love to a child? Hell, what is love to an adult? Why ask my father about his reaction to my first story now? What would I get out of it? Could I avoid taking it personally, launching into recrimination, into finger-pointed accusation? It’s a topic that would open up old wounds that are separate from, but still connected to, my writing and his feelings on it.
I don’t need to remember what exactly happened. Facts are facts, meaning they’re unimportant when dealing with amnesia. I want to know how I felt when I re-entered the living room, and asked him what he thought of my first story, and I heard his answer.