I have one major rule I follow when I write: Do no harm. It’s the first rule I teach my journalism students. As easy as it seems to keep, we all break it, though rarely intentionally. Words are powerful. Occasionally they get away from us.
So in keeping with my primary DO NO HARM rule, I hesitate to print this blog. But it’s a story that has stuck with me for decades. It deserves to be told, and I certainly mean no harm.
My earliest influence on me as a writer may have been my great uncle, Charlie Pat, a WW2 veteran. I was much too young to understand the complexities of my uncle’s condition. All I knew is that something happened to him in the war. I was told he was hit my shrapnel and suffered brain trauma. He was never the same.
Of course, I never knew him to be any other way.
My Uncle Charlie Pat thought he was Black Beauty.
Yes, I’m talking about the horse in Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel. I don’t remember how old I was at the time. I just remember I was horse crazy, and Black Beauty was my favorite book.
Back in the old days, we didn’t have Mindcraft or other computer programs to enhance our creativity. We had to rely on household ordinary stuff. My favorite “toy” was a black broom, the closest thing I had to a stick horse. And I rode it nonstop at my grandmother’s house, where, as you might guess, my Uncle Charlie Pat lived for a while.
I don’t think my parents or my aunts and uncles realized Charlie Pat thought he was a horse, but I did. I was too young to roll my eyes or criticize. I just sat down in the chair next to him in my grandparent’s itty bitty den, and I listened to all the stories he told of what it was like to be Black Beauty.
I never laughed. I had read the story at least a dozen times, and I knew every detail by heart. So did Charlie Pat. And when he told me the story, he told it in first person, just like the book. I sat enthralled. I knew my uncle wasn’t really a horse, but I bought into his reality, and I listened intently as he retold each chapter.
I always thanked him for sharing with me, and he smiled. There’s nothing more wonderful for an artist than to have an appreciative audience.
As odd as it may sound, Charlie Pat may have been the first person to inspire me to write. Although he didn’t write Black Beauty, his convincing personal narratives held me spellbound. He was able to quote every page verbatim.
As I grew older, I started to write. I became the characters in my stories. Today they’re bound in a three-prong folder, sitting on a bookshelf in my son’s room. He doesn’t even know they’re there. Maybe his children will find them someday and be inspired by their crazy grandmother who thought at age nine that she could be a writer, somewhat similar to my great uncle, thinking he was a horse.
If you think about it, all of us are quirky in our own way, and that’s what makes us so beautiful. We are works of art, but some of us are an acquired taste.
I was always perceived as that shy kid in class who never talked. I hated that stereotype. I’m not really shy. I just don’t talk much. In my decades here on earth I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve really opened up to.
But there’s a reason for that, I think. God gave me the gift of listening. God gave me acute hearing and sensitive (in)sight. I can see what others cannot. He also gave me the gift of storytelling.
I guess I am the only person in my family to interview a living, breathing Black Beauty proxy.
As I said, I was a major fan of Anna Sewell. Charlie Pat brought the book to life for me. And while his reality had been suspended long before I was born, I learned how to suspend my reality and to enjoy living in the moment whenever I took the time to be still and to listen to him. Charlie Pat pulled me into the story. For a short time in the den of my grandparents’ house, I talked to Black Beauty.
And I think that’s one reason I have been compelled to write ever since. Books let us live a thousand lives. Charlie Pat, for some reason, spent the last years of his life living as a horse.
Go ahead. Laugh. Life is funny. And frustrating. And tragic. But I’ll take funny over the other options any day.
What unusual occurrences in your life sparked your desire to write?