Tracing Footsteps Not My Own: Going Through the Motions, Learning to Write

January 25, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 1 11 min read

1.
Guiding my food tray through the crowded cafeteria, I leaned toward the young woman sitting by the window and whispered, “The ducks fly at midnight.”

She nodded, soon rising from her own seat to relay the message to a friend, who relayed it to another, until at last, all interested parties had been informed of our midnight rendezvous by the giant elm just outside of Old Main.

This was in the fall of 2003, when I—a fresh-faced first year at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois—was busily experimenting with the freedom that comes when one’s parents are 364 miles away. Not that anyone was counting.

That September night—once the homework was done and my laundry was safely on spin cycle—I made the lonely walk across the empty quad. Yet with each step it seemed to grow more populated, one silhouette after another springing forth beneath the street lights.

Maybe there were six of us in all, all budding writers whose love for the written word far surpassed our ability to actually write them. Undeterred, we’d stuffed our pockets with our poems anyway, and then—just hours after our coded, hushed whispers had been tendered and received—began our trek to poet Carl Sandburg’s birthplace, just a mile or so off campus.

Shuffling beyond the safety of the dorms, we cut across what looked like prairie: an expanse of field doused in milky moonlight. At 19, I didn’t even know what prairie was, figuring it was just the name we gave to a nondescript landscape. The word we used when we couldn’t get away with “mountain”, “meadow”, “ocean” or even “plain.”

Our late night pilgrimage across the prairie should have been taken with reverence, but at our age we gave it none. It was simply a place to pass through en route to another place. Kind of like our understanding of college itself.

That night, we marched along the sidewalks until we approached the three-bedroom home with green shutters, which had long ago been converted to a historic site. We lifted the latch on the hickory fence, giving ourselves access to Sandburg’s backyard. We should have known better, should have figured that what we were doing was wrong. Yet we’d convinced ourselves that Sandburg would’ve wanted it this way. After all, we were doing this in the name of almighty poetry. And surely such an honorable pursuit transcended any trespassing laws.

Perhaps slightly less honorable was the fact that we were all at least a little in love with each other. But who could blame us? Love, too, seemed an essential ingredient for poetry, and we sought it out—for the sake of the poems, of course—as bashfully as children.

Heads bowed, we gathered around Remembrance Rock, a knee-high boulder in Sandburg’s backyard. One after another, we unfolded those poems in our pockets, reading them aloud until the words ran out. At which point we didn’t much know what to say to each other. Our poems had served as our scripts, and how could any casual conversation ever live up to our art?

Our homage paid—and our awkwardness growing—we let ourselves out through the gate.

As the others started back toward campus, I lingered behind just long enough to read the historical marker.

“Um…guys?” I called.

They turned.

“We weren’t just reading to the stone.”

“What do you mean?” one of the young women asked.

“Sandburg’s ashes are here,” I said. “We were reading to him, too.”

That whole walk back we prayed he hadn’t heard us. Prayed we hadn’t offended the ghost of Carl Sandburg with the paltriness of our poems.

We still couldn’t think of a single word that rhymed with “love” but “dove,” and somehow we feared that wouldn’t pass muster with Sandburg.

2.
One hundred and twenty-five years prior, at that same midnight hour, young Sandburg’s life began; he was born to Swedish immigrant parents on a cold January night in 1878. His father, an illiterate blacksmith’s assistant, was overjoyed to welcome his son, placing him carefully into a three-legged cradle alongside his mother.

3.
In 1897, 106 years before 19-year-old me descended upon Galesburg, 19-year-old Sandburg left.

He was restless, and who could blame him? The world loomed large, and he was anxious to find his place in it.

“What came over me in those years 1896 and 1897 wouldn’t be easy to tell,” Sandburg later explained. “I hated my home town and yet I loved it. And I hated and loved myself about the same as I did the town and the people.”

Sandburg was confronting the same quarter-life crisis so many of us face: the itch to leave the familiar behind in search of something new.

From June to October of 1897 he rode the rails west, meeting strangers everywhere he went. And with each interaction, he grew. One summer night Sandburg shared a car with a man from Chicago, who struck up a conversation with the budding poet.

“What I like,” the man confided, “is to sleep under the stars.” He went on to explain how the stars gave him great comfort, made him feel that “whatever is wrong with the world or with me sometime is goin’ to be made right.”

The chance encounter stuck with Sandburg: reaffirmation that lives must be lived before poems can be written. And 19-year-old Sandburg knew he still had much living to do.

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Sandburg reflects fondly on these early years in his 1952 memoir, Always the Young Strangers. Upon reading it, one is introduced to a number of strangers who flittered in and out of Sandburg’s life. But it’s clear, too, that in his late teens and early 20s, Sandburg was also a stranger to himself. Hoboing was a way to rectify that, as much a personal journey as a physical one. The trip changed him.

“I was easier about looking people in the eye,” he wrote later. “When questions came I was quicker at answering them or turning them off. I had been a young stranger meeting many odd strangers and I had practiced at having answers.”

4.
While Sandburg searched for his future on the rails, I searched for mine in the third floor study carrels of Knox College’s Seymour Library. Fortified by hot chocolate and breakfast bagels, I spent many late nights there, thundering through one writing session after another, always with the hopeful intention of cobbling together a couple of readable lines.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call the lines I did write readable, though I did make a lot of them. In fact, for several months during my junior year I managed to write a story every day, more a poorly conceived experiment on the limits of “the muse” than a serious attempt at honing my craft. At the start of each day I’d search everywhere for anything resembling a story idea—a fragment of pilfered prose from a random page, or a whisper half-heard in a hallway. From there, I’d get to work pounding out my requisite 2000 words; this, in addition to a full load of classes and my mornings spent mopping dorm floors.

If you’re sensing a hint of pride, it’s because I am proud. Not of the work, but of my ability to carry it out. Today, I’m baffled by the output of those early years and attribute it mostly to my commitment to process over product, of setting the lowest bar possible and then skipping over it with ease. It was my way of protecting myself from falling too much in love with my words, always aware that there would be other words—and maybe better words—if I just kept churning them out.

I just kept churning them out, and the more I churned, the easier they became.

Much to my relief, the majority of those words are now gone—buried deep on a laptop that hasn’t worked in years.

Sandburg felt similarly of his own early drafts, noting the “preliminary trial and error” process was “intended only for my own eyes.”

“I don’t know what Rembrandt’s earlier practice portraits, which he destroyed, looked like,” Sandburg once remarked. “But for good reasons he destroyed them.”

Despite this sentiment, Sandburg himself left plenty of early poems behind, the earliest of which he collected in a volume printed in a Galesburg basement in 1904. Cardboard bound and tied with ribbon, only 50 copies ever saw the light of day. In Sandburg’s later years, this probably seemed 50 copies too many. But at 26, how proud he must have been: his very own collection of original work, which he’d fittingly titled In Reckless Ecstasy.

For me, at 19, it was more than a title. It was a way to live a life.

5.
This is a story about writing and failing to write and trying to feel less alone. And I suppose, too, it’s about “finding myself” with the same reckless ecstasy that Sandburg himself once employed.

Along the way, I came into contact with various strangers myself, many of whom crowded the seats alongside me during our 7:30 to midnight writing workshop on the second floor of Old Main. There, in that wood-paneled room, we debated endlessly about what made a story work. In all those hours over all those weeks, I’m not sure we ever came to any consensus. Except that for a story to work, all the conditions must be right. The same holds true for an essay. The characters must converge with the setting which must converge with the plot, and all of it must look effortless. No seam can ever be exposed. No non-sequitur can ever dare break what fiction writer John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream.”

By the winter of my junior year, I knew plenty about vivid and continuous dreams. I’d been living in one since my arrival in Galesburg two and a half years prior. The dream was maintained, in part, by the magic of that prairie at midnight, especially when viewing the thick blanket of snowfall from the second story windows of Old Main. As our class wound down we’d button and buckle ourselves into the warmest coats we owned, then move toward the exits, mustering the courage to push wide the double doors and embark into the bone-chilling cold. That prairie wind had a way of leaping down our throats, but with every exhale, we breathed it back where it belonged.

Boots cracking against the frozen snow, we clouded the night with our breath, still sharing with one another the story of the stories we hoped to one day write.

What a wonder it was to be alive back then. What a wonder to not yet be history.

6.
One floor below our workshop classroom, Old Main housed a bit of its own history: a maroon chair known as the Lincoln Chair—a title given due to the legend that Abraham Lincoln once lowered himself into its arms. Likely on Oct. 7, 1858, in the moments before or after he debated Stephen Douglas in the fourth of seven debates on the subject of slavery. The blustering cold Galesburg afternoon wasn’t enough to deter the 20,000 spectators who had gathered outside the east entrance of Old Main to hear the men argue for competing visions of their country.

Though born 20 years too late to take his place among the crowd, Sandburg remained fascinated by his hometown’s connection to Lincoln. At 17, while en route to work at Barlow’s dairy farm, he’d regularly stroll past the edge of Old Main, often pausing to read Lincoln’s words immortalized on a pair of bronze plaques affixed to the building.

“He is blowing out the moral lights around us,” Lincoln said of Douglas, “when he contends that whoever wants slaves has a right to hold them.”

Standing in the very place where those words were once uttered, it didn’t take much for Sandburg to imagine the debate he’d missed: how that tall, lean lawyer from Springfield had condemned slavery in no uncertain terms.

I wonder if, even at 17, Sandburg had already begun dreaming his biography of Lincoln.

I wonder, too, if he’d ever dared sit in Lincoln’s chair.

Certainly I had, occasionally sneaking down to that chair when I was sure no one was looking, my shoes clip-clopping down the uneven black stairs as I prepared to indulge in an impossible luxury: feeling history against my skin. Lincoln’s chair served as a much-needed confidence boost on the days when I felt like an imposter, which was most days.

I figured if it could bear the burden of a man as great as Lincoln—and perhaps Sandburg—then surely it could manage a lightweight like me.

I soaked up all the strength I could, and then—knowing that I’d outstayed my welcome—had the good sense to make myself scarce.

7.
By the end of my first term of college, we “ducks” had halted all midnight flights. Within the span of a few months our lives had taken us elsewhere, dispersing us amongst our various newfound interests. Our occasional nighttime wanders to Sandburg’s backyard had been replaced by term papers, student government, pickup soccer and the campus literary magazine. From that point on, if we needed a dead poet fix, we’d settle for a viewing of Dead Poets Society.

Life went on just as it was supposed to.

I went to class when the bell in the bell tower rang, and I left when it rang again. All the while I imagined Carl Sandburg doing the ringing. Which, in fact, was his job while he was a student at nearby Lombard College. He’d spend hours flipping through the theological texts stacked high around him, and then, at the appointed time, he’d reach for the rope and send his fellow students scattering.

Each evening, at the sound of the last bell, I’d hustle to my third-floor library carrel, where, when I wasn’t writing, I was paging through the books in the stacks. During my undergraduate years, I believed every word any professor ever told me. When they told me to read Primo Levi and Raymond Carver and Maya Angelou, I just did. To me, their insights were sacred. And never to be questioned.

Which is why, on the day a professor handed me back my paper, along with a note informing me that my writing was an injustice to myself and my classmates, I believed the professor was correct.

Embarrassed and ashamed, I crumpled that paper into my backpack, then slunk to my dorm room to begin the process of rerouting my future based solely on the professor’s assessment. Flipping frantically through the course catalog, I decided that biology looked like a good enough fit. Though I worried whether I had the stomach to dissect a frog, I figured it couldn’t be any worse than the gutting I’d just received.

How was it, I wondered, that the thing I wanted most in the world now seemed further out of reach?

My head spun. I tried to recall what a ribosome was and failed.

Lying on my bed, staring up at that dorm room ceiling, I told myself I had two options: become a biology major, or recommit myself doubly to my craft.

My choice was not heroic; I did what I did because I figured I couldn’t do the other thing.

Even I knew better than to think I had the stomach to peel back the skin of a frog.

8.
Ten years removed from the hallways of Old Main, I now fill other halls, primarily at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where I teach English. Every day I fill students’ margins with scrawls in an effort to repay a few karmic debts. Every day, I’m reminded of other debts still in need of paying.

Like the “ducks” who flew with me when I didn’t dare fly alone.

And my fellow students who buckled and buttoned themselves alongside me as we faced that prairie wind together.

But most of all, those professors who helped a young stranger like me feel a little less strange, especially as it became clear that my self-imposed exile on the third-floor carrel would only get me so far. When you’re young enough, it’s still possible to believe that one might create anything from nothing. But in fact, “anything” always has its limits, and “nothing” always has its roots.

On my last day at Knox College, I met once more with a beloved poetry professor who’d been attending to me for years.

“Any parting advice?” I asked.

He pulled from his pocket a light blue sticky note, upon which he wrote five words:

Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo.’”

“Read this,” he said. “It’ll change your life.”

I suppose I was expecting something a little more pragmatic, something that might help me get a job. I pocketed that note all the same, then promptly forgot all about it.

It was the one recommendation he ever gave me that somehow sat dormant for years. I’ve kept that scrap of paper in my wallet for a decade now, but it wasn’t until a few years back that I bothered to heed his advice.

One fall day while reading student stories, I came upon that scrap and tracked down the poem.

I savored the words, each of them falling from my lips as I came to Rainer Maria Rilke’s last line:

“You must change your life.”

But by then, Rilke’s advice was already a decade too late. I’d changed my life by not changing it.

Nevertheless, how wondrous it was to imagine myself taking advice from Rilke. How wondrous, too, to think I was looming in Sandburg’s long shadow, while he himself loomed in Lincoln’s. But the truth is, Lincoln, Sandburg, and I all made our own way independently of one another. Any geographic convergences—be it by way of a campus, or a building, or a chair—likely didn’t alter our lives. Maybe Sandburg and I took a little more interest in the one who came before, but I am who I am regardless of their influences—much as I wish otherwise.

Whether whispering poems in Sandburg’s backyard or taking a load off in Lincoln’s chair, mostly what these men taught me is that I was not them, nor would I ever be.

Instead, I’d have to settle for being the guy cloistered in the third story carrel, one who, many years ago, chose a pencil over a dissection knife and never looked back.

Image: Flickr/H. Michael Miley

One comment:

  1. BJ Hollars,
    I am so proud and in total awe as to how your writing has turned you into such an amazing writer that you are today. I think of your grandparents who I wish could have seen your growth. I write this jyst to say how unbelievably proud and in awe I am of your success. My love and best to you and your family always…
    Cheri Rotruck

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