A Writer’s Confidence
“But I Never Drove An Ambulance In The War…”
By Bruce Jenvey
I was still enjoying the first blush of success after the release of “Angela’s Coven” when I faced the crisis of writer turned author. I’d been a professional writer for over 30 years in the worlds of advertising and journalism. But I’d always heard that while a writer writes what he needs, a true author writes what he’s lived. Supposedly, you can’t write a proper novel until your life has been sufficiently enriched by the adventures, joys and disappointments needed to make you worthy. Whenever this thought came to mind, I was filled with images of Jack London and the Alaskan Gold Rush, Hemmingway driving his ambulance on the Italian front, and even Ian Fleming outwitting Nazi spies across Europe. Me… I was just a hometown boy from rural Michigan who had never really done anything truly important or terribly adventurous. Because of this, I feared I had already tapped out the limited experiences I had to draw upon. What if “Angela’s Coven” was the only novel I had in me?
So, in the midst of dealing with the “I never drove an ambulance in the war, blues,” my wife and I went back to the small Michigan farming community where I had spent my earliest years. It was the weekend of their annual Syrup Festival and I hadn’t been here in fifty years. While time had moved forward, things were still very much the same. The Main Street had been closed off and converted into a carnival midway with events and displays scheduled all over town.
There was a craft show at what was once the elementary school I had attended through third grade. Despite some structural changes, I found my old classrooms quite easily. I opened the teacher’s closet in what had been Mrs. Kelsey’s room where she stored the construction paper, safety scissors and those large jars of white paste. There were still hangers inside where she hung her coat each morning and I swore I could still smell her perfume.
At the end of the hall, I found the room where I had attended Kindergarten. While now used only for storage, I could still see the bright young faces that shared their time here with me, the paper bunnies we all cut out and colored at Easter and how I had folded mine up and put it in my shirt pocket… not particularly proud of my effort.
In town, a walk down Main Street led us past the familiar store fronts and the historic Opera House. I remembered it being used for roller skating every Friday night. At least it was in the very early 1960s.
Right next to the Opera House, stood the house we had lived in all those years ago, a well-maintained but remarkably unchanged duplex. I paused to snap a couple pictures and when we crossed the street for a closer look, we were approached by the current owner.
To my complete surprise, once I explained our interest, she immediately invited us in for a tour. Now, the old house had been divided into not two, but three apartments and while we could not get access to the main floor unit, the upstairs, where we had all slept, was vacant and ready for us to revisit. We entered through the back and climbed the stairs, the same stairs I had climbed every day as a small child. What had been our hallway and storage area was now a makeshift living room. What had been my parent’s room was now a kitchen though I could clearly see where their bed had fit in the far corner. I recalled the Christmas my brother had set the alarm for five AM and how my father groaned that we were actually up and demanding he make good on his promise of early presents that year. That made me think of the fresh scent of pine needles and the sparkle of the hand-hung tinsel in the living room downstairs. The tree always stood against the far wall, between the fish tank and the GE consol black and white TV… every year.
We then moved into the front room of this upstairs apartment. This was our bedroom, my brother and me, and although it now had plush carpeting and freshly painted paneling, I could still see the floral print wallpaper over the plaster and lathe construction. It was somehow, remarkably the same and simply being in that room brought back a flood of vivid memories. I remembered my father telling us bedtime stories in this very room. He made up the best stories and no other kids in the world got to hear them but us. I remembered the excited, sleepless nights we spent here before family trips and vacations. I remembered where our toy box sat at the foot of one of the beds with its broken hinge on the lid. The entire box was covered with a pleated, blue plastic skirting, stapled into the thin plywood. Inside, we could see the bare, faded grain and the shallow knots as we rummaged for whatever might strike the imagination of a small boy that day… perhaps a puppet, or a cap gun, or in my case, anything with wheels.
The room still had the same double-hung windows with low sills. On more than one rainy afternoon, I sat here on this floor, next to the closet and watched the rain drops through this very window. In my imagination, they looked much like a parade of toy soldiers marching their way down Main Street. And then, I was back into the book I cradled in my lap… most always, something by Dr. Seuss and most likely, Horton Hears A Who.
Standing in this very room, where I had not been for a full fifty years, I felt the “I never drove an ambulance in the war, blues” fade away. They were replaced by the rich childhood memories that were all around me. At that moment I realized, it didn’t matter what you had lived nearly as much as how you had lived it! Authors do indeed draw on the rich experiences in their lives and relive pieces of those memories in the stories and novels they share. The goal of any author is to strike a chord within their reader. To find a common ground that communicates more than just the mere words the writer inside has pieced together. It has to be rich enough to smell and taste, and meaningful enough to be etched upon the reader’s memory. I didn’t need to worry about driving ambulances on the Italian Front, not when I had watched rain drops march down Main Street with Horton in my lap and a folded-up Easter bunny in my shirt pocket. And this was just one window, in one room, in a lifetime of memories I could still see, feel, and smell like they were only yesterday.
That’s when I knew what an author really does. An author makes the reader feel everything he has ever felt, and allows them to find the same within themselves.
Bruce Jenvey was raised in rural Michigan in a family of school teachers. After a career in advertising and magazine publishing, he has now ventured into the world of fiction with his series about the Cabbottown Witches. His first novel, Angela’s Coven (October, 2011) has met with high praise and various award nominations. The second book in the series is, The Great Northern Coven. He is now working on the third.
© 2013 by Bruce Jenvey