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Tchochkes, Tree Frogs, And Tours Of The Hudson – Why I Write

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One of my family’s favorite stories about me is something that happened when I was six. I’d just read my latest issue of Worldthe kids’ version of National Geographic from the 1970’s, and been especially struck by an article about Amazonian tree frogs. My family visited my grandparents a few days after that, and the tree frogs were fresh on my mind when we greeted our grandparents and Grandpa asked me what was new.

And so I started telling him about the tree frogs. In detail. All twenty of them.

Grandpa started out listening politely, letting little-kid me ramble on. Then he tried excusing himself gently, then politely, then firmly. But I paid no attention and just kept talking. Finally, out of desperation he just said “Kimmy, I have to go now,” and started walking away – but I just followed him, still talking about tree frogs, with barely a pause. Moments later the rest of my family was thoroughly confused by the sight of my grandfather fleeing through the kitchen, nearly at a sprint, with me running after him saying “and there’s this green tree frog, Grandpa, that has black spots and it’s poison, and you know what it eats, Grandpa?….”

The things there are in this world have always struck me with awe. I read some of the classic children’s books just like everyone else – Nancy Drew, Little House On The Prairie, The Chronicles of Narnia – and I played pretend games along with everyone else. But I was equally as likely to poke around at real things – trickle water down over sand castles to see what would happen, or collect fall leaves just because of the different colors. I was just as likely to read volumes of my parents’ ancient Life Nature Library  as I was other kids’ books. I don’t ever remember having much of a belief in fairies – but not because I thought they were babyish or didn’t exist, it was more like, I didn’t really care one way or the other whether there were fairies under the flowers because the flowers were blowing my mind enough already.

Strangely, though, I’ve never had the kind of scientific mind that comes with that kind of fascination. I would marvel at the things of the world, but wouldn’t take the extra step of wanting to find out “but why did this frog evolve into being poisonous?” What I would do, instead, is talk about them; the wonder and joy I get from discovering something new about the world is something I never want to keep to myself.  Even today, my instinct has always been to turn to someone else after I see something cool and say “hey, look, a cool thing!” and tell them all about it.

And ultimately my writing has taken a similar path. I started writing short stories as a child – but they were always stories about me coming to grips with a strange thing I’d just read about. The novel my friends and I tried writing in high school started as pure fiction, but gradually was about us. And while I did write some short fiction – and still do, once in a blue moon – the writing I keep coming back to, again and again, is nonfiction.

This is actually something I’ve struggled with a couple times; somehow writing nonfiction felt like a cop-out. Real writers were more artistic, I thought. And the handful of short stories I’ve written were pretty damn good – somehow one of my works got into the hands of the author Leon Uris while he was alive, and he gave me some honest, sincere, and encouraging feedback. This is a skill I have – shouldn’t I be using it?

But that’s not necessarily how my mind works all the time. Even the stories I made up as a girl were always grounded in some kind of fact about the world that caught my fancy, and were my own way of saying “hey, look, this is a cool thing.” Any day where I get to dig up weird information about something and then tell other people about it is a good day.

And there’s so much in the world to be struck by – abandoned film sets turned into theme parks, or tiny puppet theaters in the middle of nowhere, or Ice Age seeds being revived and sown to the point of flowering, or hiking trails that map out the sites of paintings, or Japanese cats with box fetishes, or habitable planets millions of miles away, or raccoon-type animals we didn’t even know were there, or entire nations of people we didn’t know were there, or weird languages or ancient Roman pre-Christian graffiti or riotously-painted houseboats in the middle of London or Icelandic airlines run by heavy metal fans or Buddhist monks breakdancing in honor of a former Beastie Boy or the fact that cheese and eggs can do this – or the fact of an egg in and of itself, if you think about it, or a film set or a puppet or a seed or a painting or a cat or a planet or London or airplanes or tree frogs or anything, really.

And I’m realizing that that is my truest self-expression – discovering something, letting my mind get blown by it, and then turning to someone else and saying, “hey, look at that cool thing!”  I’ve not done any works about tree frogs yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

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