Tipped off by an email from my editor at Trinity University Press, I went to the post office and got my hands on the first copy of my memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared. I took the book out of the padded envelope at the post office, and had to sit down on the curb just outside. There, in the shade on a hot afternoon, unable to walk further, I began to read.
As I watched my hands turn the pages, all my years with this project fell away. By the sound of his voice on the page, the book seemed to be by someone else, a person I would like to meet. The story was familiar, but at a certain distance from my own life. This brother who had disappeared, who had been young, happy, an intimate pal, then silent, distant, kind but troubled—I read his story with compassion and concern. What an array of indelible moments he had lived!
I followed him through the 1960s—a puritan in the summer of love, a pacifist in the era of the Draft. I followed him through the drama of early love, first jobs, wandering, then marriage. Working the fire crew in high peaks, as lightning played over the mountains chanting with his buddies, “Strike! Strike!” Eager for fire . . . his music . . . his reticence . . . I leaned closer. What was about to happen?
I cried for him as I read. He caught me. But his story was no longer a stone harnessed to my heart. My heart was not carrying him any more. I had been released from this lonesome duty, for his story was in a book in my hands. And the story had a resolution that consoled me, as by a voice beyond myself.
I remembered my first conversation with my editor, Barbara Ras at Trinity University Press, when I told her years ago about this story. Her response had been a writer’s dream: “That gives me chills.” Then her friendship had helped me to begin.
I remembered the making of the book that followed—hasty notes during meetings as moments from my brother’s life bloomed into my mind. Then jottings in coffee shops, binges of scribbling on stolen days. And finally those winter nights in a remote cabin in the southern Cascades, where I started in earnest by making a list of moments in my brother’s life, and mine, and naming them one by one:
Every Night When We Were Small
The Good Time
Two Birds with One Stone
Proud of Her Prow
A Cornfield in Iowa
The Road to Paris
The Wisdom of Insecurity
Résumé of Failures
What Do You Want?
That had been the trick for writing this impossible story—to name episodes in the enigma of my brother’s life, to title them before they were written—and then to write eighty-eight fragments of illumination in brief, in essence. The stories were like beads along a wire, each offering one provisional glimmer against the over-abiding storm.
I had managed to follow my own advice from my earlier book about writing (The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft):
“One can accomplish a work of any length, given solitudes of any brevity, by designing a cell-like structure of deft episodes—a honeycomb of treasures—building toward a whole story.”
In this case, the whole story had seemed impossible to tell, too big and too strange. This story had been a silence in my family for twenty-four years. Only by telling it in little sips, some half a page, some half a dozen pages, could I bring it forth at last. Brief acts of witness for the writer, compact glimpses for the reader—together, these had gathered into the book in my hands.
Looking up at the curb in the shade, as I let the book fall closed in my hands, I realized something essential about my time on earth had changed. I had set down a difficult and awkward burden and could step forth along a new path. There was an opening ahead. The final resolutions of the book had released me. I now had the power to begin something new.
You reach back through the difficult ending to grasp the beautiful beginning, like pulling a venomous serpent inside out. Then you are on safe ground.
Yes, there could be some challenges ahead. When my family reads the book, who knows what may come up? There may be confusion, disagreement, even some resentment. There may be some good conversation, too, or even, possibly, some gratitude, though I don’t really expect or need that. Stories of my brother I had never heard may come to light. Some of us may talk about his story in depth for the first time. But whatever happens, the conversation will be a new one—not the interrogation I have carried out internally for a quarter of a century, trying to sort it out alone in the citadel of myself. Now, in these pages, I have some consolation.
In this book, my brother’s story is alive. As I stood up from the curb, and put this first copy into my backpack, something in me had grown younger.
Kim Stafford is a writer and teacher living in Portland. He is the founding director of the Northwest Writing Institute, a zone for exploratory writing at Lewis & Clark College. His books include The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft; A Thousand Friends of Rain: New & Selected Poems; and two PNBA Award winners, Having Everything Right: Essays of Place and Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford.
100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared will be available Sept. 25. Among other appearances, Stafford will read Oct. 29 at Powell’s Books, Nov. 8 at Annie Bloom’s, Nov. 14 at Broadway Books and Dec. 4 at Elliott Bay Book Company.