The smallest things can do a number on you. Fill you up or tear you down. Rip you up, apart, sideways. Blow you away, blow you to kingdom come, blow your mind. It doesn’t take much.
A couple nights ago I dropped in at a nearby reading series. Good stuff for the soul. The guys who run it don’t know me that well, so they’re still glad to see me. I find it a welcome escape from the isolation routine of writing. They welcome me, and they read to me. They present original things—some more original than others—things they’ve created, things they’re serious about, things they’re excited about. For me, that’s better than a bottle of Centrum or a hoity-toity cocktail.
So this one egg gets up. His piece recounts a half-year in his life as a grade school teacher. Maybe he’s not the next F. Scott Hemingway, but who is? He pulls off some nice gags, works in a poignant moment or two, and it’s got a good beat to it. I’ll bet he’ll never believe what bit threw me for a loop.
This is a local guy, right? He’s local, I’m local. That’s what you get most of the time at these readings, but not entirely. You can’t count on it. You never know. But in this case, sure, the bird’s local. He’s so local that, when I least expected it, he references this neighborhood park just two blocks from my house. Just a small thing. An easy thing. A throw away bit.
I smiled out of recognition. Actually, I downright beamed. In the midst of this writer’s foreign experiences, this moment hit home big time. I experienced a great dose of pleasure in sharing recognition for the familiar plot of land at the end of my street. Then zoom! It hit me. It struck me. Like a flash. I won’t go around the bend and talk thunderbolts, but zounds if it wasn’t good enough to spark a low-watt bulb.
The moment struck a chord, and that chord connected me to the format of his presentation, to reading, to writing, to literature, to all of goddamn art. And the humble idea that washed over me was this: that very moment is what art’s about.
I’m not talking about glib references to local haunts or shallow name dropping. I’m talking about that feeling of recognition. Can you pull off that recognition moment with an observation, a bit of dialogue, a particular series of actions or the denouement?
If you can make a reader register hard with some form of truth, then you’ve really done something. That’s something to shoot for, baby. But you’ve got to aim high. Awful high. Who wants to aim low, anyway? All you’ll hit is dirt. Maybe bag a worm. Worms ain’t for me. Sure.