He used to come every Christmas. He'd be here without fail: a smiling, jovial face, dressed in a warm coat that flowed down to his boots, fuzzy mittens on his hands, and a homemade hat that dangled over his ear. He'd always pop in when I least expected him, sweep me up into a giant hug, and ask how this year went. Whether it was good or bad, I always told him. And he'd always say I was doing a really good job. Then he'd hide my presents, pat me on the head and send me on my way.
The last time, it was raining instead of snowing. He arrived later than usual, and he looked sad. I asked why, but he just shook his head. "My time is up," he said softly. "But it'll be all right. Just remember: I'll always believe in you." Then he patted me on the head, put my presents under the tree, and left.
I didn't understand at first. My mother hugged me, and my father said it would be okay, but I cried anyway. I didn't know why. It felt like I'd lost him forever.
That summer, someone told me he wasn't real. I didn't want to believe them. I tried so hard. I plugged my ears and pulled my hat down to cover them, as if it would keep me from hearing the words. The other kids laughed at me. I tried to explain, but they were sure I was wrong. They asked questions like, "How does he know your name? How does he know what you want? Why does he always bring presents?" After a while, I gave up. I said I didn't know.
They said it was mother and father. I didn't want to believe them, so I waited. I sat on the couch, across from the TV, and fell asleep on Christmas Eve, waiting for him to appear.
That was a long time ago. I still wish I'd seen him, one last time. If you know a man with fuzzy mittens, and a long red coat that flows down to his boots, and a homemade hat that sticks out over his ear, please let me know. I just want to say goodbye.
A word about balloons.
Balloons are one of the greatest inventions of all time. It’s a ball of air. A colorful, stretchy, inflated piece of rubber that floats by itself in the sky. They make people happy, simply by existing. Smiling neon faces wave excitedly from parking lots, tiny dogs and parrots ride in the hands of children, and giant creatures lumber above the Thanksgiving Day Parade.
But that’s not all. It’s not *just* a piece of rubber tied to a string. It’s a symbol of celebration: birthday parties, graduations, and weddings. It’s a sign of excitement: grand openings, yard sales, and summer festivals. It’s silliness and fun at a circus, attention-grabbing at an open house, and awe-inspiring in the sky.
Balloons can be almost anything. They celebrate, inspire, welcome, encourage, console, and more. Want a particular color? Pick any part of the rainbow, and it’ll be there. Need a shiny one? A printed foil is sure to catch your eye. Trying to surprise your 5-year-old niece or nephew with their favorite animated character? Don’t worry; they have those, too. Any occasions, any circumstance, any time. Whatever you need them for, they're there.
Not bad for some air and a string.
If you want to write, then write.
If you want to write, then write. Don’t focus on anything else. Don’t compare your stories to anyone else’s. Don’t say, “They’re so much better”. Don’t listen to the darkness in your head, or embrace the fear that you might fail.
If you want to write, then write. Don’t write long stories, if you don’t want to. Don’t plan and worry and trouble yourself over words that don’t make you happy. Don’t make things more elaborate than they need to be. Write for yourself, not to impress.
If you want to write, then write. Don’t write short stories, if you don’t want to. Don’t try to cram your thoughts into a few paragraphs if a couple pages will do. Don’t censor or edit yourself to make others happy. You can’t make everyone happy, anyway.
If you want to write, then write. Pour your soul into the words on the page. Write like a river, ebbing and flowing with emotion and story. Don’t get hung up on the rocks of sentence structure and expectation. Don’t edit, don’t stifle, and don’t change. Just let it out.
If you want to write, then write. If you don’t tell your stories, who will?
“Write a story about an author who has just finished a book.”
I thought it would feel different the first time. More excitement, more pizazz. Little droplets of confetti falling from the sky. Strangers standing by the side of the road, holding signs with congratulatory messages: "You did it! We're so proud of you!" But they didn't. And by the time I finished the ninth book, I finally understood why.
I mean, I really didn't do much. I didn't run a marathon. I didn't go to the gym. I didn't run three miles every morning before breakfast. I didn't spend ninety hours of overtime at the office. I didn't lay down my life so someone else could escape something terrible. I'm not a hero. I just woke up and typed a lot.
People don't hold signs for typing. They hold signs when you do something big. When you cross the finish line of a marathon, they cheer. When you break a bad habit for over a month, they celebrate. When you attain something unreachable, they care. That's when the signs come out. Those are the times they stand by the side of the road, and tell you how wonderful you really are.
I just typed. I sat, in a chair, and spilled words onto a page. I linked subjects and verbs together with prepositional phrases and other fillers that made sense. And eventually, after a few months of writing, it was done. Distilled into one message, a single line from my editor: "Thanks. Congrats on being done!"
I thought somebody would care. I thought they'd be excited with me and celebrate that, at last, my dream was coming true. But I was wrong. Having my first book published didn't change anything. The only one who noticed was me. It was a cold dose of reality, but I got used to it. It only hurt for a while.
In the beginning, it was different. I wanted to tell my own stories. I thought that if I just worked hard enough, and told them well enough, people would listen. They would cheer for my heroes, and plot against my villains. They'd imagine the worlds they live in, and want to live there, too. They'd fall in love with an imaginary universe, just like I did. And I'd make enough money to buy lunch.
And I tried. I poured my heart and soul into those words, agonizing over every comma and conjunction, but nobody wanted to listen. They didn't love my characters. They didn't love their worlds. I was heartbroken. My bank account remained empty, and so did my belly. So instead of telling my tales, I wrote someone else's. I packed my dreams away, and focused on what everyone else wanted to hear. I gave them their words, not mine. And they loved me for it.
Regret? Maybe. But I don't regret writing, even if it's not my story. Maybe one day, I'll tell the tale I always wanted to say. I'll wow them with twists and turns, capture their imagination and allow them to see the world through my tinted glasses, just for a little while. In the meantime, I'll buy myself a nice bottle of wine for finishing another book, and start typing the next one. But I've learned not to expect applause any more.
“They found out.” He ran his fingers through his hair. It was a fidgety habit, something he’d done ever since I’d met him. It meant he was trying to come up with a story, a lie so enormous that nobody should believe it, but they would. They always did. “Somebody lied about me.”
“Oh?” I lifted my eyebrows in surprise. “How?”
“I don’t know. Nobody will tell me.” He dug his hands into his pockets. “They won’t look at me at all. It’s like I’m not even there.”
“Yeah.” He found a lighter and flicked it into life, holding to the cigarette dangling from his lips. A faint glow illuminated the edge as it sparked. A memory flashed through my mind. A faint glow, just like that, on a nightly walk. A faded promise to stop smoking forever. I shook my head as he exhaled, a plume of smoke vanishing into the night. He grinned at me. “Still don’t like it?”
“Nope.” I smile tightly. “Never did.”
He took another drag. “I remember differently.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked. He leaned forward, flicking the ash off his cigarette and spitting onto the ground. I grit my teeth. Another memory flashes through: me asking him to stop, him waving me off again.
“We always saw things a little bit differently," I said.
“And? What do you mean?” He repeated the question in a sing-song voice, as if I was a child. I tried to ignore it, but it still got under my skin. It always did. "Remember when you missed your sister's birthday party?" I asked.
"I didn't miss it," he said. "I never got the message."
"Right." I looked up into the empty darkness of sky. "Remember when you said your friend wouldn't bring you back from those tournaments, so I should pick you up?"
"He didn't like driving on your side of town."
"How about when you told your brother I was having an affair?"
His cheeks flushed, and his fingers closed around his cigarette. "Those were private messages."
I kept going. "What about your friend from New York? The model, the one you pretended to call in front of me? The one you said didn't pick up his phone, because he isn't real?"
He didn't answer this time. He just stood sullenly, staring at me from underneath his newsboy cap. He always stopped talking when I got too close to the truth.
"But it wasn't just me you lied to, was it?" I asked softly. "You lied to everybody. About everything. Me, you... and everybody else. It would be such a shame if they found out."
A terrible realization started to form in his eyes.
"I'm sure they'd hate to know what you said behind their backs," I continued. "Things they never said, stuff they never did, places they never were. Conversations they never had. I don't think you even know what's real any more, do you?"
He crushed the cigarette into the ground with his toe. "What... have you done?"
I smiled again, a predatory grin this time. "Everything."