In a shadow box on the wall above my desk is the following quote: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But, when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” Mark Twain, 1889. It’s the only quote I have on my wall and I got the shadow box when I was in Virginia City, NV, one weekend when I decided I needed to visit my muse. The definition you’ll find for muse is not what I am referring to here. A muse in this context is a source of inspiration, a myth, dating back to Greek mythology, that artists and writers credit for giving them a spontaneous idea even when they weren’t looking for one. Mark Twain is my muse.
I have visited his boyhood home in Hannibal, MO, on two occasions, routing my trip through there just to stop and contemplate, stand behind the gold cord separating his bedroom from the upstairs hallway, stand by the white-washed picket fence, cross the street to Becker Thatcher’s house, walk down to the corner where Grant’s drug store still stands, and the office of Justice of the Peace, J. M. Clemens. The mighty Mississippi is a stone’s throw away. You have to leave Interstate 70 to get there, so it’s a little out-of-the-way if you’re heading east, and it’s mostly two-lane highway from the exit.
The first time I visited Hannibal was during a cross-country road trip to Chicago with a friend of mine. It was an arranged side trip, but still in the general direction of our final destination. I was terribly disappointed because Tom Sawyer’s (Sam Clemens’) boyhood home was being renovated and covered with a clear plastic tent. They were rebuilding the structure board, by nail, by board. I still felt good just being there, and it had been on my bucket list for a long time.
The second time I visited Hannibal, it was again a planned stop on the itinerary of the “Maiden Voyage of the Titanic” a very “used” 1982 Southwind motor home. The exhaust manifold had blown loose for the third time and we had a real difficult time maneuvering the 32 foot box around Hannibal’s narrow streets, with the loud muffler-less V-8 roaring as we went. We finally located a muffler shop, on a hill of course, that agreed to have it fixed in a few hours, for a fee that was not in our travel budget. So we grabbed some lunch across the street from the muffler shop, then strolled through downtown Hannibal on foot and walked along the river. The Clemens’ house was completed and we were able to walk through the rooms this time. A National Historic Landmark, since 1962, the rooms have been painstakingly restored to how they would have looked when Sam Clemens lived there as a boy. I’m not sure my wife and youngest daughter were as captivated by it all as I was, but they humored me, and can now say that they have visited the boyhood home of Mark Twain.
The quote, though, calls attention, most appropriately, to me, and all my children, and grandchildren, and all that had life before me. We all think we know everything when we’re in our teens. We’re ready to be on our own. Those parental units don’t know anything. How could they be so ignorant? My grandfather said to me when I was about that age, that I shouldn’t be in such a hurry to grow up. “You should enjoy being young, and not having any responsibilities,” he said. I scoffed at him. I wanted to drive, I wanted to get a job and earn money, I wanted to move away from this small hick town we lived in, I wanted adventure, I wanted to travel, I wanted to go to Disney Land, and I wanted to see the ocean. I should have listened to him.
The span of childhood is so short, yet we can’t wait for it to end. We don’t like being a kid. We want to be our own boss, and not be told what to do, where to go, who to go with, when, why, and you better be home by ten. Then, in just as short a span, we figure it all out and wish we had listened, that we had to, once again, be home by ten. It only took Mark Twain seven years to figure it out. It took me a little longer.
Tony Hillerman, accomplished journalist, mystery writer, professor and dean, once told me, after critiquing one of my short stories in college, and I quote, “You could be the next Mark Twain.” It burned in my memory and over the years I have tried to understand what he meant. I’m certain he didn’t think that my writing was so good, that I could, in fact, be the next American humorist. What would it take to be the “next Mark Twain?” Certainly you would have to write, have an ability to view, with understanding, everything around you, and tell stories that entertain, have a point, and make you chuckle from time to time. I think Professor Hillerman was just trying to make me feel good, keep me motivated, and effectively raise the bar.
So, whenever I have the chance, I visit my muse, hoping this will be the time when Mr. Twain visits me with a spontaneous idea for a story, even when I wasn’t looking for one.