ALAN v26n2 - This Writer's Safe

"This Writer's Safe"

By Graham Salisbury

July 18, 1994

Isn't it typical that life would challenge me with yet another lesson ... and this time it has gone to the center of my soul. In these first days of shock and confusion I hurt way down inside, as does Robyn.

We've just discovered that our 15-month-old son, Zachary, is profoundly deaf.

It has been four years, almost to the day, since I wrote that passage in one of my notebooks. It goes on for several pages -- more grief, questioning and confusion.

Looking back now I wonder why it was such a big deal. Even in the mindless days of my youth I knew life wouldn't always be sweet. So why the shock?

That passage tells me something about myself, though I'm not sure I have my arms all the way around it yet.

Zachary is still deaf, of course, though we have been fortunate and successful in dealing with it and finding help for him. But reading that passage now, the first time since I wrote it, I can see that all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth were not his. It all belonged to me. My first thought was: how can this happen to me? How can it be my son? This kind of thing happens to other people's kids, not mine.

Certainly, at the time, I was blindsided by something I did not understand. My fear and pity -- for myself and for Zachary -- were completely unfounded. Sure, it's lousy to be deaf. But it's lousy only from my perspective. For Zachary it's simply the way it is. It's the only world he knows

My fear was of the unknown. I simply had not thought about deafness at all. I didn't need to think about it, because it would never be a part of my life.


Anyone home?

The point is that I would never have remembered all that initial anguish had I not wept within the pages of my notebook. As always, life eventually healed me, and Zachary has thrived.

Looking at this passage four years later I see how tentative I was about my understanding of the way life is. Zachary's life, of course, wasn't in any danger, but it seems mine was, my emotional life. The acceptability of my life somehow depended on the acceptability of his.

How silly.

My journal is my "safe," the place where I can protect and save the tender shoots of new ideas, the broken pieces of my life, the sometimes awesome heights of my spirit.

On the other hand, I truly dislike writing in my journals and notebooks. I don't like the effort of it, the loss of time grudgingly devoted to it, the feelings of "why am I doing this? I'll never read it again," the self-consciousness of assuming I have anything important to record.

Yet I've saved pieces of thought, special memories, shards of emotion.

Usually I'm ... stingy ... with my time. I feel time spent writing in a journal or notebook is time wasted. I'd rather be working on a novel, an article, a short story; I'd rather be reading or running or boating or fishing or renting a video, for cripes sake.

But somehow I know there is gold dust in the air. Sometimes I breathe this dust, and ideas form. Ping, ping. Little gifts popping in my mind, my spirit.

When I see a father walking with a hand on his son's shoulder I feel a kind of pride in the ideal of fatherhood. Sometimes I read things that move me, or when I watch my children play or read or hug their mom or laugh, I feel something fabulous; I know that the world is peppered with ignorant and desperate people who scare the spit out of me and something inside me cringes when I'm suddenly confronted by them, and the unspeakable things they do, and I know that makes me sad for humankind; I know that being alive is a miracle -- how can I even be here? Who am I? Why am I alive? Why am I human and not animal? What will happen when I die? Why are there things I can't even fathom, like infinity, or consciousness, or God?

I try to capture pieces of that fascination in my journals and notebooks.

August 2 , 1997:

At 5:30 this morning as I walked in the dawn light to my car to head downtown, I was stunned by the round, shadowy moon with a brilliant white crescent cradling its lower edge. My first thought was, "My God, there's the peace that's missing from this violent, mad world. There's the stillness." It was both inspiring and depressing.

I'm a strange journal keeper.

I enjoy the act of buying blank journals. It's a second-cousin activity to book buying.

This is the game:

I go to a bookstore. Find the journal section. Touch all of them. You feel things; they say: Maybe, or Yuck, or Are you kidding? Eventually, one will feel right. I buy it. At home I take it out of the bag and run my hands over it and smell it and open it. When I'm ready, I write an enthusiastic title page.

Then I bite my pencil, think a while, and enter something on the first clean page.

In the following weeks I write more, though slowly. After about ten or twenty pages I'm all worn out.

In a month or two I'll write a paragraph, or a sentence. Or a word.

Time passes.

With a third to a half of the notebook filled, it finds its way to the shelf with my zillion other notebooks and journals.

Eventually, I see or read something that moves me, really chokes me up, or makes me angry.

Quick! Rush to the bookstore.

Find the journal section.

Touch them all ...

January 1 1988:

The boat jerks wildly in the churning sea, slams into erratic swells, mashed together, crumbling under force-ten winds, all confusion, but swells coming from the same general direction; horizontal spindrift, wind humming through aerials, outriggers; On a boat with his dad, Sonny sees a black ocean, gray-white broken water; Uncle Raz and Boy are not far off on another boat, Uncle Raz's charter boat; Sonny sees them across the way, fifty yards of angry sea between them; Raz is frozen to the wheel, head hanging out the window to see beyond the windscreen, too much water coming over the bow; Sonny sees Boy in the cabin just behind him, gripping the seat; Boy suddenly moves aft for some reason, out onto the open stern deck; why doesn't he tie a safety line around his waist? Too dangerous to be exposed in the stern cockpit without it; he's thrown down as the boat lurches hard; he grabs the fighting chair, appears to be trying to retrieve something that has broken loose, a rod and reel, expensive, but not worth risking exposure for; why no safety line? Why no life vest? If it were Raz he'd not use a safety line either; none of them would; why be so foolish out here in this weather? It's a matter of living or dying; the boat is hit broadside by a swell; Boy is thrown against the chair, then back toward the transom; he goes down; Sonny sees him hit the gunnel, hit his face, his mouth, hard; Boy flips overboard and is swallowed by the black sea. Sonny screams....

My notebook is many things, one of them being a place to free write. This passage poured out in a ten-minute session of writing whatever came to mind.

I wrote this entry as I was beginning to imagine BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA. And it's interesting to note that I used the name "Boy," a character who appears years later in JUNGLE DOGS. But the most powerful thing I got from this free-write is an attitude that characterizes the men and boys in BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA: that none of the Mendoza men, except Sonny, would think to use a safety line in foul weather. This was a huge revelation. It showed me the power the silent code of manliness held over these people.

Free writing is an important activity for a writer, and a notebook is probably the best place to do it, because you keep notebooks. Loose paper can disappear.

September 9, 1991:

The heroic characters who give me hope and courage are not impossible ideals with qualities of bravery and strength I can never attain to, but ordinary people who somehow or other manage to do extraordinary things... So I want my protagonists to be perfect, defining perfect as thorough, thoroughly human, making mistakes, sometimes doing terrible things through wrong choices, but ultimately stretching themselves beyond their limitations... characters have a habit of surprising me by becoming heroic when I haven't thought that was even a possibility for them... so when I write, as well as when I read, I want to be surprised, stretched. (Madeline L'Engle)

I save things like this in my safe, my notebook. I have many such quotes from people I admire. When, in my work, I get down so low I'm thinking, "why bother," I search my notebooks for passages like this. They nudge me back.

Those who inspire me don't have to be writers.

February 5, 1989:

You know, it's not until you get older that you realize how incredibly juvenile that quest for fame is. You say to yourself, WHAT was I thinking about? Fame is not what's important. What's important about work is skill and experience, the ability to create and make something beautiful. (Bette Midler)


To make something beautiful, something that will help make sense out of an often senseless world.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a missing puzzle piece to a story I'm working on. I usually have a pen and yellow pad on my nightstand. With my eyes closed, I fumble around for them and slowly scratch out my gauzy thoughts. If I open my eyes, the Dream State will be lost. Poof. Sometimes what I scribble in the middle of night seems ridiculous in the morning. And sometimes it makes me shake my head in wonder.

March 1988:

With Dad's help I made a long, slow turn and came back up on his boat. It rode at its mooring as easily as a coconut floating in a tidal pool. I searched the hull, the small blue and orange bulkhead where the pilothouse was, the mooring line, trying to see if I could see what Dad saw.

BLUE SKIN OF THE SEA, page 13, almost word for word. Often in my notebook, I'll save things my friends say.

January 1998:

My challenge for my next book is how I can make it bury my last book . (Chris Lynch)

(On the ending of a novel in progress) I don't know how I'm going to get there, but I know how I'm going to feel when I do. (Marion Dane Bauer)

(On finishing) If at some point I feel the work is done, yet feel unsettled about it, I send it to a trusted reader and ask: what is this book about? This helps me get very clear about what I've done. Then I revise and craft it endlessly. You DO have to suffer some to find out what it's clearly about. (Carolyn Coman)

Sometimes I save things that make me smile.

May 1998:

Zachary has a pre-school friend named "Oscar," and when Zachary says that name it comes out as "Monster."

June 1995:

My son Keenan asked a question today that took some thought: does God have armpits?

Perhaps the most useful of all my many notebooks is the one I am filling from front to back without stopping to go out and indulge in a new one. This particular notebook is a true inspiration.

Over the years I developed the habit of reading with a pencil. I mark passages that somehow thrill me. After I finish the book I copy each marked passage into this notebook. Then, when I am unable to move forward with my own writing, I take this little book out and thumb through it.

It usually takes less than ten minutes to get me so pumped I can hardly wait to get back to work. There is nothing so inspiring as studying the masters.

Tobias Wolfe:

Her arms were as thick as a man's, and when she pounded out hamburger patties the whole kitchen shook.

James Berry:

He had his elbows on his knees and his hands blocking his ears. He had his own worries.

Jay Parini:

My brother looked darker now than ever, his eyes sunk in their caves, his cheekbones prominent, the chin and lower jaw unshaven. His hair was slicked back as usual, but a loop of it came unstuck when he jerked his head to speak, and it dangled across his forehead, the kind of thing that drives girls berserk.

Cormac McCarthy:

Rawlins smoked. He looked out the window. Outside it was already dark. The streets were wet from the rain and the lights from the cafe and from the lamps in the plaza lay bleeding in the black pools of water.

The bottom line for me is a weird kind of self-gratitude that I have somehow taken momentary breaks from my own self-absorption to record and save my deepest emotions in my own, somewhat bizarre safekeeping system. My many half-filled, half-abandoned journals and notebooks remind me of the life I have lived.

Whatever force it is within me that urges me to put things into this safe, thank you. Without that deep-level urge, that desire, it would all have vanished.

December 1997:

Zachary, with his miraculous electronic hearing device, a cochlear implant, can now hear. Not as well as a normal hearing child, but he can hear. Without it, he is utterly soundless. Yet with it he will answer my call from another room. He will understand what I say to him, his language now developing in great bounding spurts. His speech comprehension is remarkable. His visual comprehension is awesome (he flattens me when we play Memory). His motivation to succeed is truly inspirational. How can one contain such immeasurable joy?

My journal experience is so erratic and eclectic that REAL journal keepers would be insulted that I even dare to assume I could write about the art of journaling.

Certainly this is true.

But to me, a journal, a notebook, is simply a personal safe with a combination lock on it. And writing in it is my way of capturing the single most important gifts a writer has: notes on how it FEELS to be human.

As my good friend and colleague, Brock Cole, says, "One way to live life to the fullest is to put it into words."

Anyone can keep a journal. All you really have to know is its combination.

It has three stops.





The Under the Blood-Red Sun Dell book jacket cover image, and the photograph of author Graham Salisbury, are used by permission of Bantam Doubleday Dell.

Reference Citation: Salisbury, Graham. (1999). "This Writer's Safe." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 2.