My grandfather gave me a notebook the night he passed away. He placed it in my hands, looked me in the eyes, and told me it was the key to solving my writer’s block. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it wasn’t writer’s block that I was suffering from. Instead, it was a full acceptance of the fact that I was never much of a writer at all. I spent my childhood, teenage, and early adult years looking up to him as a role model. I loved telling everyone about my famous novelist grandfather who had earned all sorts of awards and literary accolades. I wrote stories, silly, embarrassing little things, stories that I thought were much deeper than they were. I cringe to think of someone as accomplished as my grandfather flipping through those pages and trying to stifle a scoff while his grandson looked on eagerly from the other side of the table, waiting to hear what he had to say.
“This is great stuff here, Colin. Keep at it. It’s only going to get better,” was his answer every time. Little did I know that what he most likely meant was “Nice try, but it’s still nothing.”
By the time I got out of college, I had a mostly finished rough manuscript that I shopped around to a few publishers. Granddad told me he’d gladly recommend me to anyone I wanted him to, but stubbornly I denied him. I didn’t need any help to break into the business. He didn’t. But after the first few rejection letters, it became a lot harder to not take each “Thank you for your submission, but unfortunately, we must pass” as a personal affront to myself. Eventually, I stopped trying.
“That’s just it, Colin,” my grandfather said one evening after I ripped up a letter from a particularly famous publisher, one I just knew was going to love it, “now is when you can’t give up! You’re in the middle of the fire. Once you push through! You’ll make it to the other side!” I thanked him for the advice, but I never submitted my stories for consideration again after that night. “How’s the writing going?” my grandfather would ask every time he saw me.
“I’ve got writer’s block” I would lie, without missing a beat.
“Still? God, Colin, you need a muse!” I nodded and agreed wholeheartedly.
Time went on and it took its toll on my grandfather until it left him bedridden and haggard. That final night that he would be trapped beneath his sheets was when I came to him and he whispered that he had something to give me.
“Open the drawer” he wheezed, lifting a wrinkled finger and pointing it to the bedside table. I opened it and found a small, leather-bound notebook inside. “I’ve had that notebook for fifty years,” he said before doubling over in a coughing fit. He continued, “I wrote all my best ideas inside those pages, and now I’m handing it down to you. Trust me, this is what cures your writer’s block.”
“Granddad, there’s nothing in here,” I said, flipping through the old book, empty pages staring back up at me, but when I pulled my eyes away, my grandfather had taken his last breath.
I had a desk stowed away in the far corner of my attic. I placed the notebook on top of the desk and pushed it out of my mind for weeks, but one night, I had a dream, so vivid and fully formed that I woke up sweating. I raced up to the attic and tore the desk drawers apart, looking for a pen. Finally finding one, I scribbled everything down in the notebook before it left my head.
I slept better that night than I had in years.
The following nights, I kept having these perfectly structured dreams. They played out like fully formed stories. Each time I woke from them, I scurried up to the desk. I never brought the notebook down to the bedroom. There was something in the sprint up the stairs that helped keep the ideas fresh. By the end of the month, the notebook was almost full, a single page left blank. I was dying in anticipation to find out what I’d write down.
But that night, I didn’t dream of anything, and when I woke up, I was hit with a panic I couldn’t explain. I made my way to the attic stairs and ascended. I stopped at the door, I could see orange light flickering through the crack. Swinging it open, I found a single perfect flame, erupting from the heart of the notebook. I ran to the desk, but the flame was too fast and had engulfed the entire journal by the time I felt the heat upon my face.
I blinked and the fire disappeared. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I saw all that was left of my grandfather’s notebook. An entire month of dreams turned into a smoldering pile of ash in thirty seconds flat. In a heated rage, I threw my arms across the desk and slapped the smoking dust into the air. The particles floated downward like snow and disappeared beneath the floorboards. I stormed out of the attic and didn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
It was a week before I decided to poke my head through the attic door again. The center of the desk was still blackened and charred, but there was something different about the room. There was some kind of electricity in the air, something exciting I couldn’t quite place my finger on. I felt something brush up against my foot and I looked down to see what looked like a small weed growing through the floorboards. I crouched down and plucked the stem from the cranny it was nestled inside. Bringing it up to my face, I found that I was holding a long, rolled up piece of paper between my fingers. It was impossible to read, but I could see words on the paper, written in a deep golden ink. When I unraveled it, I discovered the words were in fact mine. It was the first idea I had written down in the journal. The paper was growing, slowly reaching the floor, resembling a scroll more than a page torn from a journal. As the page extended, more ink appeared from thin air, staining the page and forming words. The idea was being given a skeleton, fleshed out. I can’t explain how, but the words weren’t alien to me. They felt as though they were actual thoughts that grew from my own mind instead of something I simply inherited. Eventually, the paper stopped growing and the words stopped forming. I rolled it back up and took it downstairs, holding it close to my heart.
Each day I visited the attic to find something new growing there, eventually becoming almost impossible to manage. First, the floor was covered in a wave of paper grass. I had to pick out a path for myself in order to make it to the desk without damaging any of the notes. After that, they began to wrap themselves around the supporting columns and the faded walls of the space like kudzu. Eventually, my attic became a greenhouse filled with bushes, trees, and flowers, all made of notes and scribbles from fevered midnight dreaming.
The notes I harvested all turned out to be part of a larger picture. After long nights of organizing, reorganizing, and a little trimming, I was able to shuffle them all into a cohesive manuscript that I mailed out the following week to multiple publishers. It wasn’t much longer before all the publishers reached back out, each wanting the novel for themselves.
It wasn’t as if my days were nothing but smooth sailing after that. Often times, the garden grew too quickly to keep up with any ideas, hundreds of flowers wilting into crumpled pieces of paper in the corner. Other times, the garden would go completely bare, drying up for months on end. Each time I thought to myself that it was the last straw and I was finally finished, but no matter what, things seemed to always work out in the end.
It’s been years now since my grandfather passed and I do my best to live a life that would let him know I was grateful for his gift, but it’s hard to ever forget that he’ll never truly know the impact he made on me. For now, the best I can do is to simply continue to follow in his footsteps. Now, whenever an interviewer or someone at a book signing asks me where all of my ideas come from, I smile and say that it’s simply a family secret and nothing more.