When the Sum Comes as Surprise

“Thinker on a Rock,” by Barry Flanagan, Wash U campus. Photo by John Griswold


One of the few syntheses available to us is that it is hard to know what we are until we are mostly formed. Others may spot aspects of us at a glance, the way civilians once identified warplanes by their silhouettes, but they are all at different angles and have varying amounts of light, so they say different things. We are inside and cannot see our own shapes.

When I was a child I knew I could be anything, so I had nothing specific in mind. (The world took care of the rest.) When I was a soldier I thought I was an adventurer. (I was more and less.) When I started in the academy I thought I was an academic. (Any academic will tell you it was not so.)

Circumstances have let me write 20 times more nonfiction than fiction, so I have merely thought: writer. (Others thought: “.”) To tradespeople I have no knowledge. (To those who need a towel rack screwed to the wall, I am a god.)

The experiences accumulate and make a form, like a reverse candle, and I have burned mine on all three ends—a childhood of libraries and strip mines, the loss of home, army service, a little education, corporate job, more education driven by having learned how to learn, 20 years of teaching. All the rehabbed rooms, meals cooked, loves made, trees felled, drafts written, children raised. All the people in every sphere I have traveled in have been my teachers, as well as many I knew only from books or genes.

My friend says I have lived more than one lifetime in my troubles alone. I accept that but do not like to hear it too often, because I feel as if I am just getting started, that I have only learned some things and in doing so have aligned myself to walk down the path into the trees.

Still, I understand I wear some of it on my face, where I cannot see it, and carry it in my body. My calves are defined because I have always walked on my toes, for instance. (Have to keep on your toes.) My face, despite my best efforts, is already more Mayakovsky than Chekhov, and is likely to end more like Bukowski’s than the laughing William Carlos Williams’.

And so I look with interest at the accumulation of what I have been becoming all along. Few are pleased with that thing, but I see its functionality, utility, longevity, and so its beauty. I have been headed, in everything I did and said, for being free, and I can sometimes almost imagine it.

Never mind meeting your maker. Are you prepared to be the maker you are?

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.