Timeline #3: Oxford.

[Continued from here].

(On top of the Loughrigg Fell in the Lake District of England. Sorry for the smudged scan.)

I was lucky enough to get into the Francis E. Kelley Oxford Programme with one of my junior year roommates and best friend. Junior year I lived in a garden apartment with five other guys.

We were ecstatic: six weeks in England studying British and American Media and Culture and taking classes on Shakespeare, Middle English and History, and traveling all over England and Europe. I’ve written about it before, because these six weeks were amazing for my growth as a person and a writer. 

I had just read Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Word of Staggering Genius and I wanted to experience everything. Traveling is great for a writer—you’re always out of your personal context and forced to really pay attention to everything that is different or unfamiliar. It is ripe with stories. At the time I didn’t know how life-informing AHWOSG would be for me that summer, and why it’s still one of my favorite books.

I tasted real beer—not Labatts or Milwaukee’s Beast or Natty Sick—but Carlsberg, Strongbow Cider, Jupiler, and when I came home I could drink Lake Placid Brewery’s Ubu Ale like it was mother’s milk. Guinness was significantly different in England than the US. This was a badge of honor, a turning point in my life. Most of all I learned what it means to be the eldest child.

A classmate’s father was very sick. This classmate had to leave the program to say goodbye.

I’ll never forget the scene: it was raining and this classmate, head down, left the program director’s office and walked through the courtyard. No umbrella. I knew what was said to the Franciscan father who ran the program. I nearly wept in this classmate’s room. We’re still kids at this point, freshly 21, and the classmate asked me not to cry.

This is, eventually, the burden eldest children have to bear. A lesson Eggers illustrates in his first and best book. We replace the elder of the house. Most of us are out of the house by the time this comes. We’re well into our careers, our houses, our families. But this classmate had three younger siblings—the youngest starting high school that year. That’s an experience most of us don’t have to bear until much later. Fundamentally, I knew this is going to happen, but to watch it—the experience of it happen to someone else—is very different from intellectually understanding. To watch it unfold before my eyes, so young, my worst nightmare was an experience that July 2002 taught me about life and writing.

Stories and the World #3: Oxford.

When we arrived at Somerville in July, a close friend said, “My life is a movie.” That’s when this storytelling bug clicked. The week long trips to the Lake District, hikes up the Louhrigg Fell at sunset, croquet on the lawn listening to Radiohead’s The Bends on repeat. 

[Me at Abby Road, London, July 2002]

I came to understand an elder son’s burden when my roommate and best friend had to go home because of a parent’s health. Reality settles: this will eventually happen with me and my father. And as I play with my son this past weekend, take him to Free Comic Book Day—he will have to come to terms with this fact as well: I will not be here forever for him. In fact, the only one who will be is his younger sibling or siblings. (Who does not exist yet.) 

But that’s what is important about stories: eventually your story becomes your kid’s story. No story is ever truly yours, although only you can tell it. You must decide to sit down and give it to someone else. To make that connection. That’s why you must ask—can I tell this story? It involves you. A piece of your soul. 

Then we make our marks on the walls, send our words up in balloons, and give it to someone else who creates fond memories of the material that has been read.
If I’m not feeling that gut fire of honesty when telling a story, you’ll never read it publicly.

Stories and the World #2: Oxford.

When I think about stories what I try to do is make sure I pay attention to where I am, and reveal a little of myself to you. Get you a little drunk with ideas and dramatize the world we live in. 

We tell stories to reveal something to ourselves.
These stories come in all shapes and sizes. We’ve been telling stories since the dawn of time in the form of cave paintings, through pictures and words that eventually became hieroglyphics, then Latin, then our current alphabet. Those words came back together to form the comic book—visuals told with short, poetic phrases. “Less is more” and “omit needless words” as my first writing teachers taught me, that I’m still learning. The visual descriptions in panels can become paragraphs steeped with word pictures, or “words for pictures, as Brian Michael Bendis writes about in his book on writing comics. The paragraphs form the internal organs of stories. Those stories become the fabric of our lives. Nonfiction becomes fiction, and vice versa. 

 “What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction?” 

One of my tutors asked me this in the summer of 2002. There is no difference. That’s what I learned when I was at Oxford University’s Somerville College—the same school Margaret Thatcher attended. My tutor, teaching me Middle English Literature, encouraged me to read Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series. He asked me this question and I started paying attention to my surroundings. Carrying around a notebook more and more. The pub crawls, traveling to Belgium alone, the fight in Dublin after visiting the Guinness factory like every good American tourist. Stonehenge. All that bleeds into the fabric of my story, leading to connection. 

You must feel deeply and write honestly to connect with someone you may never meet. 

Some stuff gets fictionalized to enhance our day-to-day life. 

I went to the number seven party school in the nation from 1999-2003. In my junior year at St. Bonaventure. I lived in what was called a “garden apartment” with five other guys. We had a bench press in the living room, played Tiger Woods golf on the original Sony Playstation, and X-Men Children of the Atom (Iceman forever!) We listened to Incubus’s “Seven Shades of Green” on repeat while benching. Throwing parties every weekend to fund food shopping, at each party we walked with about fifty bucks in our pockets. It was at this point that I felt the need to tell stories. Fictional ones. Maybe this story is one of them. What do you think? 

In one road trip, I wrote a zombie-hunting road-trip from Rochester to Buffalo to Cleveland where my roommates and I fought off zombified classmates during Columbus Weekend. We fought, we insulted each other, we had a smoke room. More time was spent in the library since all I wanted to do at the apartment was bench, sleep, and party. I sat down and did my work in the library until it was done. Returned to the apartment to get my reward. And then I got into Oxford. 

To be continued…