Searching for the story

A version of this story appears in the Oct. 6, 2011, edition of the Rutland County Express.

I like anniversaries. Not in the out-loud, “happy anniversary!” celebratory sense, but as acknowledgments of important moments, both personally and historically.

These are not days I mark explicitly; rather, I note them with quiet reflection. I consider the time gone by and all that has transpired in between. On these days, the past feels closer, as if the membrane between past and present has diminished, and, given the right conditions, you could reach back and be in that moment once more.

One such anniversary takes place next week. I was 20 — a sophomore in college without a major and unbearably restless.

I woke up that first morning eight years ago in the backseat of my car. In White River Junction. This was 2003. I had been in Burlington the night before, and had lit out down I-89 when I realized I had no place to stay.

The early autumn frost clung to my windows, dulling the already muted gray twilight that shone in. I climbed out of the car, and stretched my legs. Vehicles darted in and out of gas stations and along the road — filing into the narrow interstate on-ramps, heading anywhere but here with pneumatic efficiency.

I trudged across the hotel parking lot, my legs and back tight from the cramped confines of my makeshift bed. In the lobby, I quickly located the continental breakfast. As I enjoyed my stale bagel, I watched the other guests wondering if any of them were also here under false pretenses.

I watched the harried families, the young but unattractive couples, the businessmen of varying degrees of style, and I wondered how many of them were really happy. How many of them truly understood what it meant to be a real person? The person they used to see in the mirror as children — still innocent and uncorrupted by the compromises and expectations of the rest of the world.

I took one last sip of my watered-down OJ and set down the too-small glass. “Was this what the American dream tasted like?” I wondered.

Heavy stuff for a light breakfast.

Somewhere inside me, I knew I wanted to be a writer long before that morning, but I had never fully embraced it. It was something I was good at, but never took very seriously. That morning, however, found me in the midst of something completely different.

The events of the recently passed summer had put me in the company of some old high school friends for whom creativity and quality discourse mattered. And we enjoyed much of it as we smoked our Camel Lights and lived out a moderately debaucherous college break.

In these friends, I rediscovered the muse dormant beneath the disjointed chaos of my post-high school trajectory. I began to understand life in terms of experience, believing that heretofore I had been living in theory alone.

September brought me back to school; my second year at a place I chose out of objective apathy, and now was beginning to regard with quiet resentment. The social and academic calisthenics were stifling. This was no place to foster my nascent revelation, I thought.

I found relief in my writing workshop. I quickly set to work detailing the adventures of my summer. Soon, my stories had the attention of both my classmates and professor. I was surprised and pleased. It was the reinforcement that I desperately needed.

It felt great to be writing, even better to be writing well. However, by October, I was tapped. I had depleted my summer vacation catalog. I found myself trapped within the confines of my new write-what-you-know philosophy.

I sat in my dorm room, the soft white glow of a blank page shining from my laptop, and let despair creep in. Over the next few days, the feeling consumed me.

I headed home to Rutland for Columbus Day Weekend. I hoped the change of scenery would jar something loose. As I sat in my bed that Monday dreading my return to school, I asked myself why I was going back at all.

So there I was in White River Junction with my stale bagel and economy-sized OJ, unapologetically truant. I got in my car, and headed down I-91 looking for my story.

The next five days took me around New England — Burlington, New Haven, Boston — visiting friends and hungrily absorbing each experience. To be sure, this was an extreme way to treat writer’s block, but it felt right.

With the exception of the people I visited, no one knew where I was. There was something liberating about being “off the grid,” so to speak. It was part of the romance of it all.

Being on the road is addictive. Once you get in the groove, it’s hard to break out of it. It’s a comfortable kind of uncertainty. And as someone who, up to that point, had tended to need things planned out, not knowing my next move was exhilarating.

Briefly, I considered not returning to school at all. Atlas in hand (this was before smart phones and TomToms), I plotted my route west. I discovered that through friends I could couch-surf all the way to Montana.

It was enticing, but ultimately, I went back. I still had to write my story. (For the record, the western leg of my adventure came the following semester.)

Back in my dorm, I opened the document I had started before I left. The few short paragraphs I found about chasing clouds down highways seemed to presage the past week. I turned the experience around in my head, reached the breakthrough I as looking for, and finished the story.

The fear of writer’s block no longer loomed. It was just a myth. There is always a story to be told. You just have to know where to find it.

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