Recently, I failed to participate in National Novel Writing Month. But…while I wasn’t writing a 50,000-word novel, I was staying abreast of NaNoWriMo’s weekly missives from well-known authors. I caught the pep talk penned by Lemony Snicket in the same week I read Curtis Smith’s Witness. “Writing a novel is a tiny candle in a dark, swirling world,” Snicket wrote. Witness is decidedly not a novel. Rather, it is a collection of eighteen essays exploring topics as varied as fatherhood, war, tattoos, media hypocrisy, teaching high school, faith, poverty, poaching, photography, disguises, death, and the magical powers of literature.
It’s appropriate that the collection opens with “Vision,” because in that essay, as well as those following, Smith proves he is a seeker of vision in every sense—dream, nightmare, insight, foresight, wonder and foreboding. In that opening piece, the author describes an ultrasound revealing a white spot on his unborn child’s heart. When the spot vanishes, Smith wonders where it’s gone:
In this world where matter can neither be created nor destroyed, what had become of the spot? Did it still exist in my child’s body, a free-floating particle of malice? Had it escaped the trappings of my wife’s body and tumbled off on the wind like a dandelion seed? Did it follow me around, brushing against my world, showing itself as the tickle that preceded a sneeze, an irritation begging to be scratched?
Though the essays cover myriad topics, the linchpins are those that feature Smith’s toddler, a healthy little boy despite the sinister white spot. In “Giraffes and the Unspeakable Beneath,” Smith braids observations of his son with those of his public high school students. “When a graph is completed or a sentence diagrammed, what truly counts is the vague middle, the untidy domain of scrap paper and arcane symbols,” he writes. “What matters isn’t visible, what matters is the unspeakable beneath.” In other words, to gain the kind of vision that matters, we must pay attention to the invisible, the unclear, the question. It’s the questions that matter, after all:
The big giraffe and baby giraffe—his christening, not ours—are a team, and when one is missing, the search begins. Cushions are lifted, our house’s dusty nooks explored until the lost party is found. Reunion awaits, and in its glow, our son performs his posing ritual, for the giraffes must stand facing one another, the baby’s snout nuzzling the muscled knot between the big giraffe’s front legs… Something is being said here. I sit on the cool floor and try to comprehend.
As readers, we proceed through the author’s observant and sensitive prose, reminded essay by essay that our vision—the way we perceive the world—changes, from infant to toddler to parent to grandparent. And, in Smith’s case, from parent to teacher to writer to agnostic to sort-of-believer. In the piece titled “The Agnostic’s Prayer,” he writes: “My son zooms ahead through a late summer’s twilight. Above us, the bruised underside of well-spaced clouds, a sprinkle of hardy stars. Darkness creeps from the east, and in the air, a hint of autumn.” The boy is rushing headlong into a spooky landscape: twilight, bruises, darkness, creeping. It’s as if Smith’s tomorrow is a nightmare. His book’s publisher may be sunnyoutside, but his outlook lurks on the bleak side. Yet even as he refers to himself as a sarcastic pessimist, he exercises his gifts of language and awareness to wrest moments of grace from situations heartbreaking or brutal or mundane. In “The Borders of Diane Arbus,” he admits his failings as a teacher, yet finds that these imperfections engage him:
Her gift lay in seeing that within moments of ordinariness, there existed profound truths that remained long after the moment had evaporated, truths penned in the unspoken language that lingers beneath the masks we all wear. The teacher in me perks at the notion, understanding there is much, much more I need to learn.
Smith appreciates the profound cloaked in the ordinary. It seems he appreciates the cloaked in general, as masks, disguises, and ghosts appear throughout the collection. In “Little Devil,” the author is temporarily converted from post-modern worry-wart to chaos advocate, promoting Halloween as:
the rudimentary images that would follow my son through his life, his first introduction to the true, meaningful milestones that would mark his place in the world, his flirtations with the dark undertones of disguise and death and fractured reality, the wonders of tasty treats and harmless shivers.
In “Goodnight Nobody,” he speaks of “magical moments in literature,” particularly of one page in the children’s classic Goodnight Moon. Two words and only two words grace that book’s page:
“Goodnight nobody” lends weight to the weightless. It paints the invisible. In an uttered breath, ghosts are born, spirits recognized. ‘Goodnight nobody’ resonates as a grinning bass note smuggled into a lullaby’s slumbering melody. Too young to realize it, the child has been introduced to monsters in his closet, imaginary play friends, stuffed animals that stir to life after goodnight kisses and whispers of sweet dreams.
Smith’s short fiction and essays have appeared in more than sixty literary journals and have been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. Press 53 published his last two fiction collections, The Species Crown and Bad Monkey, wherein the author’s stories can make you laugh and break your heart. In them, too, he plays in the dark, embracing monsters. But doesn’t everybody want to hug monsters and see ghosts, just a little, enough to be amazed, but not so much as to incur trauma? We do. We want to believe; to bestow faith in something we cannot detect but know is there nonetheless.
As Lemony Snicket wrote in his NaNoWriMo pep talk, “Writing a novel is a tiny candle in a dark, swirling world. It brings light and warmth and hope to the lucky few who, against insufferable odds and despite a juggernaut of irritations, find themselves in the right place to hold it.” I would argue that insightful writing, period, is that tiny candle, and that Curtis Smith offers us its flickering flame in the form of Witness.