All my life I wanted to be a writer, but I was 33 before I realized that writers write. Teachers teach, plumbers plumb, writers write. I decided to begin: I would write every day, at least a half hour. It wouldn’t matter what I wrote—I could write letters if I got stuck.
I set my typewriter in front of a window in the dining room of our rental house. I waited until midmorning, when the baby was asleep and our other two kids were playing. And so my writing life began.
Outside my window it was January in New Mexico—not much to look at except a dead stick upright in the brown stubby grass. The stick reminded me of everything in my life—the lousy house and my husband and me not seeming to like each other much and both of us being in our thirties and wanting to be somebody and chafing because we weren’t. As soon as spring comes, I thought to myself, I’ll pull that stick out of the ground!
And then spring came. And the stick, like Aaron’s rod, sprouted leaves—it was a tree! Then it budded, then put forth creamy white flowers, then bore fruit—apricots, soft and peach colored, so delicious.
I kept on writing, a habit now. I didn’t know how to make a story so I wrote little pieces about the funny things the kids said or cranky meditations on marriage, even a short essay about that stick and how an apparently dead thing one day bore fruit. My ruminations on the tree led me to stew about roots and seeds and soil and the mysterious things that occur in the darkness, where I—who trusts only what’s in front of me—cannot see.
We moved to El Paso. I kept on writing, audited a class at the University of Texas there (the teacher turned out to be Raymond Carver before anyone had ever heard of him), learned about short stories. And then, one Sunday afternoon, our two sons were caught inside a burning playhouse. And everything changed.
If ever someone could say there was a darkness, it was there in the fire. And yet it wasn’t there at all, because there in that particular darkness, a new life took root.
Almost immediately, we were snatched out of our regular lives—the hospital in El Paso wasn’t equipped to take care of severely burned children—and set down in a new place, a hospital in Galveston, Texas, on a hot and humid island 1,400 miles from the dry desert. There in that place, every impression—the cawing of seagulls and the smell of the air early in the morning, so full of the ocean, and the crushing of seashells under my feet as I walked back and forth from the hospital to my boardinghouse—these things engraved themselves on my mind. I wrote everything down.
When we came home after three months, I was often overwhelmed with how many things I had to say—wanted and needed to say—about the fire. There was the fire, the one that changed our lives, and there was fire itself, consuming and transforming. And there were the scars—so deceptive, it took so long to see past them. And there were those kids—our own among them—who were so strong and remarkable.
I wrote three or four long stories, but there were so many more to be told. I would start some and write notes for others. I seemed to be telling the same story over and over, but always from a different point of view—I couldn’t leave anything out. Some stories I finished, some I never did, but there was one in particular that could find no end, no safe harbor, and that story was about a boy who entered my imagination: Riley—a big oversized boy, an adventurous, inquisitive talkative boy who was the essence of all the kids we met at the hospital. I loved this boy—his jaunty aggressive ways, his reverent pursuit of understanding. He seemed to breathe in the back of my heart, but I didn’t know how to tell about a life that would be such a mix of sorrow and joy.
More than 20 years passed. I decided to just quit writing altogether—it wasn’t going anywhere. Slow as I’ve always been, I didn’t know that the work I was doing was waiting. And I didn’t think to remember that waiting is part of the process of bearing fruit, that waiting, in fact is a part of the process of writing.
But then: a sighting of green leaves. A door opened, I thought of a friend and she was full of encouragement—all those stories about the fire? Why don’t you—? And so I did, putting everything—everything!—into Riley’s story, telling it through his eyes, tucking in the old stories and the old notebooks, the essays I used to write about the kids when they were little, even the image of the stick outside my window when I first decided to start writing nearly 30 years before. It all came together—pure grace.
The fruit came after all. And it was delicious!
Lee Merrill Byrd lives in El Paso, where she and her husband run Cinco Puntos Press. Her most recent book is Riley’s Fire (Algonquin Press).