I went to a Michael Chabon artist talk recently at the University of Baltimore. My friend Kent loves Chabon’s work, and he suggested I go. I’ve only read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which I loved, so I decided to go. The talk was going to be about writer beginnings, as in, where do you get your material, and once you have it, what do you do with it. Perfect. I love stuff like that. I’m always curious about how other artists create their work.
The talk probably lasted an hour. Chabon alternated between reading a story entitled Switzerland Today (that he wrote for the Washington Post Magazine) and talking about his life. Chabon grew up in Columbia, Maryland, which he likened to “living in an immense novel” what with streets named after writers and poets (e.g. “Faulkner Ridge”). For Chabon, Columbia’s public library was his “wilderness.”
As he went back and forth between the short story and his life, I started thinking about how writing is similar to photography. Using words, Chabon was creating a picture in my mind about that summer in 1974 when he was sent to live with his grandparents, how hot it was in their house with no air-conditioning, and how there was nothing to do. Out of desperation, he grudgingly agreed to meet a next-door neighbor, a crippled boy named Fred, who no other kid in the neighborhood wanted to be friends with. Fred immediately reminded me of Sammy Clay from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. He too had spindly legs from a bout with polio.
Michael Chabon then gives this advice (paraphrased):
For material, drive backwards, deep into your memories. Take your life, your memories, and then betray them.
All mediums are one. Writers use letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, similes, metaphors, while visual artists use dot, line, shape, direction, dimension, scale, movement, color. The building blocks in each art medium go from simple to complex. These building blocks are obviously not identical, but all artists have the same goal: to communicate.
In Chabon’s case, it is to make the reader feel something.
That is what I remember. Most of the time I don’t even believe it myself. I remember that, after another instant of hesitation, Fred whirled his crutches into position and, wielding then like chopsticks, plucked himself up onto his feet. He moved to the edge of the roof, which directly overlooked my grandparents yard. He cast his crutches to one side. And then he stepped off into the sky. I remember the plaid of his shirt, the pale band of nape revealed by a recent haircut, the searing heat coming off the roof shingles. I remember the song that was playing on the radio:
I can’t get it out of my head
No, I can’t get it out of my head
And I remember the way he looked, pasted against the sky. The heat of the roof rippled the air below his feet, as if it bore him aloft. As if the summer itself had the strength to do that. He smiled at me.
At the end of Chabon’s talk, I felt nostalgic, as if I myself had been on that roof that hot summer day. I didn’t know what was true and what was fiction. Did Chabon actually meet a crippled boy sometime during his childhood, who years later, show up in Switzerland Today and in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay? Maybe. Maybe not. “Take your life, your memories, and then betray them.” I love this idea.