All of us have books that we read at just the right moment. I think, often, these start when we are adolescents because it is at this age that we begin earnestly questioning the world around us. Most of us could write a paean to these books, but how many of us really remember short stories that did just the same thing?
I’m as bad as anyone about this. I will often roll off a list of my favorite books. I can tell you when I read them and how they affected me and why they are still important to me. But I forget about short stories. And that’s not fair because there are two stories that were as important in my life as any novel.
I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s story “Leaf by Niggle” in a collection called The Tolkien Reader, though it was more recently published in Tales from the Perilous Realm. I was in high school, in the period of Tolkien obsession that seems obligatory for so many readers and writers I’ve met. I had churned through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and even tackled The Silmarillion (it took two tries, but yes, I did finish it). I was buying everything I could get my hands on. And in this particular collection was a tiny story about a man named Niggle.
As you might guess from the title character, the story is straight-forward allegory. It was written during a period when Tolkien worried he would never complete LOTR. It is about a painter who is working on a very large painting of a tree and is worried he won’t get it done before his “journey” starts. The message, which was not lost even on my less-than-enlightened high school self was that creativity is its own reward. That work, in the end, is good as long as your intentions are good. The climax comes when Niggle sees his tree presented to him just as he meant it to be:
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that about a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and spread them wide.
“It’s a gift,” he said.
I didn’t need the story in front of me to type that passage. It is, I should note, no coincidence that the first serious story I ever tried to write was a not-very-subtle retelling of this story.
“Sophistication,” from Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, came a few years later. I was a sophomore in college and busy feeling lost in the way that is specific to people of that age. The story concerns Helen White and George Willard. Helen has already left their small town for school, but is back for a visit. George will be leaving soon. Few other people from that town are going anywhere. The two of them feel separate from the rest of the people they know. Accepted, but misunderstood. I think I had better stop here and quote Sherwood Anderson before I continue.
There is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes the backward view of life. Perhaps that is the moment when he crosses the line into manhood. The boy is walking through the street of his town. He is thinking of the future and of the figure he will cut in the world. Ambitions and regrets awake within him. Suddenly something happens; he stops under a tree and waits as for a voice calling his name. Ghosts of old things creep into his consciousness; the voices outside of himself whisper a message concerning the limitations of life. From being quite sure of himself and his future he becomes not at all sure. If he be an imaginative boy a door is torn open and for the first time he looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness. The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. He shivers and looks eagerly about. The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling. With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another. If he prefers that the other be a woman, that is because he believes that a woman will be gentle, that she will understand. He wants, most of all, understanding.
I cannot articulate how exactly this passage coincided with the moment in my life when I read it. I was nineteen, a year older than George, but of exactly the same mind. Eager and lonely and sad and curious and utterly inept and so desperate for some other person who was like me but different from the people I had known.
Later in the story is this passage:
With all his strength he tried to hold and to understand the mood that had come upon him. In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt.
The title for Lonely Human Atoms (my thus far unpublished novel) is taken from a misremembering of the phrase “oddly sensitive human atoms.” If the book ever is published, these will be the words that greet you before you start the book. In fact, everything I have ever written has been an attempt to capture and explain the feeling this story gave me. I once had a girlfriend challenge me on the worthiness of writing and I read to her from this story to show her how wrong she was. I once asked students to bring in a passage from a book that made them want to write. When I shared (I always try to share), I read to them from this story.