When I was about ten years old, my foolish young mind latched onto a terrific idea for mindless diversion: what if I took a tennis ball and threw it onto the slanted roof of my house and let it roll back to me? What if I did it again and again? And what if the tennis ball got caught in the gutter? And wouldn't it be a hoot if I scrambled onto the roof to retrieve the ball, tossed it down to my brother only to have him throw it back, repeated the process a few times until I fumbled the ball, and then stupidly chased after it for a few steps because I had forgotten that I would run out of roof? And let's just say, for the sake of argument, that I plummeted to the ground, landed head-first on the concrete patio and got an enormous bump. Wouldn't that be fun?
All of this really happened. And coincidentally, that's the same period of my life when I started to write fiction. Is there a connection between that concussion and my burst of creativity? Yes, but it's not the one you might expect. The tennis ball incident, without question, was the stupidest thing I had done in my short life, but the story made people laugh. When the customers on my paper route asked about the bruise on my forehead, I retold the events with careful precision. I included every detail and when in doubt, I invented some more. Months later, when a friend at school tripped in gym class and banged his head, I cheered him up by telling him what it was like to fall off the roof. His eyes were wide open the whole time.
Storytelling became a part of my life. I had started reading at an early age and had relied exclusively on the stories that were handed to me, but when I fell off the roof, I learned that engaging stories are everywhere in the world if you look closely enough. I started paying careful attention to the conversations of other people. I watched the expressions on faces of friends, family and strangers for clues as to what they might be thinking in contrast to what they were saying. I amused my classmates in school with furiously scribbled text starring the entire junior high population taking part in wacky escapades that would more regularly be seen on shows like Three's Company. When forced to deal with stressful situations like my parents' divorce, I looked for patterns in the chaos and projected a sensible conclusion. I observed. I documented. I looked at my surroundings as raw materials for my creative urges. And that made all the difference.
A few months ago, I attended a high school graduation party for the younger sister of an old friend. She and I were not close, in fact, I hadn't seen her for the better part of five years. My old friend had invited me because he knew how much I enjoy listening to the chatter of teenagers: that glorious self-centered attitude of adolescence makes for anecdotes of Homeric proportion, even when the incident being described is nothing more than a dropped ice cream cone. I moved through the crowd, interacting as needed, while maintaining my focus on colorful speech and possible material. When I heard an unknown voice say something about a tennis ball bouncing off the roof, my ears perked up. I moved closer to that group of kids and found myself bearing witness to the retelling of one of my own stories. The kid knew how I had fallen from the roof as well as I did, but I never heard him say my name. When I made eye contact with the kid, there was no glimmer of recognition. He had simply remembered hearing about that crazy afternoon when a kid was dumb enough to chase a tennis ball off the edge of a one-story house. At that moment, I knew that I had chosen the proper discipline: keep your eyes open, find good stories and document them well. Therein lies immortality.
As long as you don't fall off the roof too often.