Sometimes a writer’s great fear is that the keyboard sitting there right under the fingers will turn blank, useless. I know would-be writers who were so traumatized by the blankness of it all that they never, ever attempted to write again. All us other writers know this feeling, but those of us who refuse to stop are the ones who keep turning out the books and stories and columns and poems.

Here’s an example of a piece that wrote itself without my help. Every line is true and actually happened. I just didn’t know the story was within me. I did not let the fact that I had nothing to write about stop my fingers from writing:


  It was a cool and clear and pleasant night, the night he raised his foot and placed it flat dead-center on the first rung. The rung felt solid and made a satisfying metallic thud when his shoe came to rest. There were no handrails on each side of the rung, so he grabbed the next rusty metal rung with both hands and gave himself a little lift with his other foot, then slowly unbent his rung leg so that he could ascend and place his other foot upon the rung. He gave the next rung up a quick shake to see whether its seeming stability was real.

Looking straight ahead, he saw a rung right before his eyes, dividing the cold red bricks comprising the smokestack with a perfectly horizontal line. He looked down to the rung above the one he was facing and hesitated. Should he try to rise to this next one?  Why not? No-one else was around, the property from which the smokestack jutted was deserted this time of night. And the smokestack was just standing there, where it had been waiting for him for the fifteen years he had lived within sight of it.

His right foot rose and touched the next rung. Shifting his weight to the ball of this foot, he quickly and carefully brought his other foot up and, behold, he was standing on rung number two!  His hands went one at a time up to the next rung. He remembered the first rule of wing-walking: never let go of one thing until you’ve gotten hold of something else. He did not want to look up yet, because the smokestack was so very tall. He did not yet need to look down at the ground because he was just a few feet up. He still could drop to the surface and not get hurt. He looked up at the next rung and grabbed it, then down at the lower rung and repeated his previous motions, carefully climbing to the next level. Then, he proceeded to go several more rungs upward, taking care to be methodical, taking care to gaze only straight ahead at the old red bricks.

Before he knew it, he did not know where he was on the smokestack. Had he gotten halfway up? He knew he was too far up to drop back safely. He knew he would probably die were he to fall at this point, so he held on even tighter to the rusty iron rungs, aware that some of the cement holding the bricks together was beginning to flake off here and there in response to the unfamiliar tugging at the iron rungs imbedded in it. Still, the rungs seemed firm.

Should he continue? Should he go all the way to the top? Nobody would ever know if he decided to back out, decided to descend while he still had the strength. He tried to go down one step to see what it was like. He was surprised to find that going down to a lower rung was a lot harder than going up. His foot did not find the rung as easily as he had imagined. He could not see where his foot was on the rung because he was clinging so tightly to the upper rungs. He could look down from side to side, but he could not look straight down at his feet. He froze there for a moment, his breath made visible in the coolness of the night, his heavy breathing the only sound he could hear at the moment, the pounding in his ears was the pounding of his heart, the buzzing was from the adrenalin rush from this unfamiliar experience.

He squeezed his eyes shut, took a deep breath, and started climbing again. You’re only fifteen years old once, he thought. Soon, he was near the top of the smokestack. He must be near the top, he thought, though he could not quite look straight up. The next rung he grasped wiggled in the cement. It was coming loose from ages of neglect, ages of hot weather changing to humid weather changing to wet weather changing to cold weather changing to icy weather. Expanding, contracting, meshing cement against brick, different textures slowly eroding and grinding each other down and loose.

He tried not to panic. I’m too close to the top, he screamed without opening his mouth or engaging his vocal folds. Gotta do it, he thought. He parted his teeth and sucked in more cold air, then started climbing again. He was suddenly at the top, peering at the soot-stained interior of the thick smokestack rising above the town of Tuscaloosa, rising above his little neighborhood, overlooking Northington Campus and Northington Elementary School and the Board of Education and the University’s Student Housing and Eastwood Avenue and 15th Street.

Off in the distance he could hear the hollow mellow lonely sound of a train whistle. He could see the glow of lights from Downtown Tuscaloosa off in the distance. He could see the stars hanging exactly where they would be hanging a million years from now whether or not he ever made it down from the top of this smokestack, whether or not he ever told anybody what he had done, whether or not he ever even understood why he would do a thing such as this. He quickly started going down the smokestack rung by rung, forgetting how difficult it was going to be, determined to stay alive to the bottom, determined to live long enough to try to understand why anybody would do such a thing as climb a tall smokestack filled with loosening bricks and wobbling iron rungs in the middle of the night in the early part of his life.

When he wrote it all down a half century later, he began to understand why he had done it but he had great difficulty putting it all down so that you could understand it as deeply as he

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