I had just completed my first semester at Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It was time to go home in NYC for Christmas break (six hundred miles by the most direct route). My pals and I decided to hitchhike home. I cannot explain the reason for wanting to do this idiotic thing, save that I was seventeen years old, as were my three friends. One of the guys lived in Philadelphia. I lived in Brooklyn. Another lived elsewhere in the city. The fourth lived in a NY suburb. It was winter. The idea that we believed people would pick up four guys at a time seems absurd. But that was the plan. I can only speak for myself when I also tell you that I didn’t tell my family that I was doing this.
We started off. I have no clear memory of how we got to Erie, Pennsylvania, but there we were at 1:00 AM. (This was hardly the direct route.) I have a vivid memory of standing there along a deserted street. No cars were passing. Then by some miracle a guy picked us up and saying all he asked was that someone talk to him—so as to keep him awake—he was going to NYC and he would take us there.
I think it was about 6:30 AM when I walked up to the door of my house. I had a key and entered, thrilled that I would surprise the family.
I walked in and was stunned to realize I smelled the distinct scent of my home. It was something I never noticed before. Moreover, within a matter of seconds, I had lost the sensation, and never, ever retrieved it.
That was more than sixty years ago.
Why am I telling you this story?
I was recently working on a new book. My protagonist returns to his old home after more than a year’s absence. As I was writing a description of that moment, I suddenly recalled the story I relate above. And, as my fictional character walked into his own home, I had him catch a whiff of that building.
This was not planned on my part. It was not anticipated in any way. But if the book is published and if that moment remains in the text it will share with readers in fictional terms something that happened to me so long ago.
I’m here to suggest that a lot of fiction is written this way, consciously or unconsciously. That one might annotate a myriad of moments in a text and connect them to experienced moments in an author’s life. It is the way fiction comes to life.
Can one learn to do this? As Buddhist teaching has it, “One must become present in the moment.”
In more mundane terms, one must learn to notice, notice everything. That’s the way to start writing.