Memoir Nonfiction

This Great Big Scary Thing

I open the door of the car which swings open freely, and set my feet on the ground, run for the tree line. There is a path in here somewhere, the hayfield, I know it. There isn’t. I will have to create my own path. This is where the adventure starts. Where the snakes hide in wait. Where the flowers form at the root and the weeds do all they can to strangle the beauty. The road is not paved before me. It never was. This is where the children of my past run freely. Where the thorns snag at shirts and acorns fly through the air like bullets piercing into skin.

You’ve gone a million miles
How far’d you get
To that place where you can’t remember
And you can’t forget [1]
—From “Secret Garden,” by Bruce Springsteen

Whenever I have sat down at my computer to work on ‘This Great Big Scary Thing’ [2], I have found myself in a state of paralysis of sorts.[3] Prior to sitting down, the thoughts were intact, whole, ready for transcription; but no sooner than I plop my behind in the seat do the words crumble then disappear into nothingness, the neurons cut off as it were—the road for my thoughts to travel from my brain to my fingertips no longer there. It’s not that the road is a little bumpy, a pothole here, a pothole there, and in need of a simple repair. It’s that the road simply ceases to exist. Not even a gravel road is before me, nor dirt. So, here I am, in this car suddenly without a road to drive, the keys in the ignition. There’s gas in the tank and an impetus to travel, yet nowhere to go. Before, I would just sit dumbfounded in the idle car and stare at the nothingness, at the line of trees in the distance, at the hayfield leaning slightly in the breeze before the timber. But not this time. I open the door of the car which swings open freely, and set my feet on the ground, run for the tree line. There is a path in here somewhere, the hayfield, I know it. There isn’t. I will have to create my own path. This is where the adventure starts. Where the snakes hide in wait. Where the flowers form at the root and the weeds do all they can to strangle the beauty. The road is not paved before me. It never was. It was always a mirage—this linear path from point a to point b. It only existed in my mind. My legs itch from the tall grass, and so I pause in a low spot, dig my fingernails deep into my skin, and scratch. Red streaks pool to the surface. It feels so good to scratch. At my ankles, a ring of seed ticks gather like wool socks down into my shoe. I start running again. I’m getting closer to the trees now. They are tall and overwhelming. Pillars of time before me. This is where the stories live. Where the creek runs and cuts into stone, where the birds talk to one another. This is where the children of my past run freely. Where the thorns snag at shirts and acorns fly through the air like bullets piercing into skin.


[1] There is no single musician who triggers the memories of my childhood more than Bruce Springsteen. I was raised on The Boss. (Example) Playground swing set, Phenix Elementary School. First grade. To get higher and higher in the air on the swing, I put “Born in the U.S.A.” in my head and let the sky take me so high the chain jumped at the link, placing a ball of terror, hot and fiery, in my belly. Also, “Secret Garden” is one of the most underrated songs of all-time. Yes, it’s about a woman and not childhood, but listen to what he’s saying and it will rip your heart out; or, at least it used to rip mine out. Beating heart in hand.

[2] ‘This Great Big Scary Thing,’ as I sometimes think of it, is really When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, the memoir I began writing in the summer of 2003. It has terrified me in so many ways over the years. It’s a difficult story to write for a number of reasons. Here, you give it a try. Sit down in front of a computer or a notebook with an ink pen in your hand and capture your childhood and balance it against a heavy subject such as brain cancer or dying, and do so in a manner that honors the people you are writing about yet doesn’t fictionalize us or our childhood in a way that portrays us as these grandiose, angelic figures we weren’t growing up or gloss over our very real flaws which make us, each of us, uniquely human. Capture the humanity, the individual personalities, the laughter, the sadness, the silence, the anger. It’s easy to think about. Memories. It’s hard to put into words. Balancing heavy and light, is just that, a balancing act.

[3] First, I am not currently experiencing a block… any longer. See “The War is Over.” However, I want to talk about writer’s block. There are writers who don’t believe writer’s block exists. I’m not one of them. A traumatic experience can cause a child to become a selective mute. Being a selective mute does not mean the child has nothing to say. Quite frankly, there is a lack of empathy in a writer doing this, to pretend writer’s block doesn’t exist because they, thus far in their life, have not experienced it. And I understand that for some, to say it “doesn’t exist” is meant with a good heart, this sort of tough love approach (See 3.1), to pull the writer from the block and to say, “Yes, you can. Just start writing and it will come.” For some, this may indeed be the simple solution to writer’s block. My personal experience says otherwise. Can a traumatic experience not do the same for a writer as it does a mute child whose words have been stolen from their mouth? Is there not a person, someone, perhaps, who never considered themselves a writer, who internalized tragedy for decades that one day broke free and went on to capture this tragedy at length, externalizing it? I’m not speaking of me in this regard, the previous sentence, but in speaking of my experience, my dad’s death in 2009, it did paralyze me in many ways, though it did not keep me from writing entirely. The phrase “writer’s block” tends to be this all-encompassing definition, meaning it includes those who have extreme difficulty getting out anything the writer feels is publishable as well as those who do not write at all during this time. I’ve always, in some way, kept the pencil moving (though I lacked in frequency, my stubborn ways refused burial), so I suffered from that of the former, not the latter—that what I wrote was borderline forced, was s–t in my opinion. Either way, the points, as noted above and below, are still relevant. Writers, many, write to understand the world, the good, the bad, the ugly, and their experiences therein; but sometimes, in taking a step back to understand it all, it’s far more important just to listen; meaning: your mouth closed, your fingers idle. Writing, after all, is an expressive form of communication in much the same way as talking. I am reminded, in saying this (“just listen”), of growing up in Phenix, Virginia, where my friends and I played non-stop every day, in the woods, down by the creek, in abandoned buildings, on the train trestle, at the basketball court, in the field behind Jeremiah’s house; I, too, am reminded of picking up the first book I ever read from start to finish—at age 19. Yes, I was 19 the first time I read a book from beginning to end that wasn’t read to me as a small child by my mother. That’s correct, I never read the books we were assigned in elementary, middle, or high school, ever. I’m not bragging. As someone who found a love for books later in life (and as someone who couldn’t sit still for the life of him as a kid), I am merely being honest. Growing up, my adventures, the stories that took place, they didn’t take place on pages in a book. They took place in life, in real-time. And I listened to these stories as they were being written, but I did not write them necessarily at the time they were happening. I wrote them years later. I write them now. Sometimes a “block” is not a punishment or an excuse. It is a gift. It is asking you to listen.

[3.1] That, or for other writers, because they want to thin out the ‘writer’ pack to only those deemed worthy, as if, some centuries before, or quite honestly, even now, they, themselves, are/would have been “deemed worthy” in measurement to their contemporaries. Think of it like this. How many of your friends on Facebook are {quote} photographers? Does it bother you, if you are a photographer, that someone else who you deem not as talented also calls him- or herself a photographer and holds shoots and sessions. It shouldn’t bother you. There’s a stoic principle in this really {the dichotomy of control}. Perhaps their talent will grow just as yours grew, or perhaps you aren’t as talented as you think you are to someone, a professional, perhaps a well-traveled photojournalist for an esteemed national magazine, who thinks you, just as the other less talented photographer to you, are not a photographer; and thus, you see how this all plays out. Thought another way: if you run, you’re a runner. Plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if you are Usain Bolt or a Boston Marathon finisher or a 42-year-old slightly overweight woman or man who begrudgingly is out on the trail when they’d rather be at home lounging. You run, you’re a runner. If you write, you’re a writer. It doesn’t mean you’re William Faulkner or will ever be William Faulkner. It means you’re you. The criteria to be a writer doesn’t say you have to be able to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (See 3.1.1), know the difference between your and you’re, type 90 words per minute, or any other such nonsense. It just means you have to sit down and write. The end. Note: You’re allowed to experience writer’s block, so long as the writer’s block doesn’t last your entire life from start to finish, because then, yeah, you’re sort of just pulling everyone’s leg about the whole writer thing. If anyone tells you otherwise, that this criteria exists, or implies the talent threshold is x, there is underlying insecurity lurking on their part. Insecurity plays out in numerous ways: passive bullying being the oft used online strategy, and it’s one you should be cognizant of so that you don’t allow it to sway the view of yourself/hobby/professions/hopes/dreams/goals.

[3.1.1] Legend has it that Jane Austen would have been stomped in an elementary school spelling bee, didn’t understand punctuation a lick, and owed her “polished prose,” as it has been called in university circles for decades, to her editor, a poet by the name of William Gifford, who you’ve never heard of until now.

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Photo: John Buie. “Apex Hayfield.” Licensed under CC-BY-2.0.

By Jeffrey Pillow

Jeffrey Pillow is an American short story writer, memoirist, and poet. He is the author of The Lady Next Door. His writing has been published in Urge Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, 16 Blocks, USA Today, Sports Illustrated,, New York Times, Washington Post, and Richmond Times-Dispatch.

He grew up in the small town of Phenix, Virginia, population: 200, and now lives in Charlottesville with his wife, two kids, and a dog named Mozzarella Cheese. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia where he was a Rainey Scholar. This is his blog.