Sometimes I wonder if anybody knows the proper meaning of the word "masterpiece." Everywhere, even in prestigious literary magazines, I see people applying "masterpiece" as though it means "crowning achievement of a lifetime." Admittedly, we could use a simple word for that, and I guess we don't exactly have one (or not without borrowing from other languages--you could say magnum opus, or chef d'oeuvre if magnum opus didn't seem sufficiently pretentious). In any case "masterpiece" isn't that word. No masterpiece is ever made by a master. A masterpiece is the last job ever done by a journeyman: the first work made well enough to have been crafted by a master. You attain your own mastery the day you finish your masterpiece. It doesn't mean you'll be remembered through the ages or anything; it's not the end of self-refinement, anything but. What it does mean is that you're ready to strike out and do your business without anybody watching over you.
In the spring of 1996 I stayed a week with my brother in Manhattan. On the way out, finding myself for the first time in my life on vacation alone with a car and time to spare, I made a pilgrimage to my childhood home, Monroeville PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh. I hadn't been back since we left, right after my eighth birthday. I could hardly recognize the place. But I'd always daydreamed about what I'd left there, and what had happened after, and in the end it turned out far more of my old world was still waiting there for me than I would ever have hoped.
All across the midwest and the east it rained without end, that year. Spring came in a little late and set about to make up for the lost time. Branches were down all over campus; the aluminum awning was ripped off the convenience store next door one night, while I and a friend sat out on my porch. The ground was so saturated it crackled audibly between storms. I've always loved storms and there has never been a year in my life that satisfied my appetite for them, save 1996.
I started Thunderlily in my brother's apartment, writing at his computer during the hours he was away; the word itself had popped into my head on the drive out, before Pittsburgh, in the rain, and I loved the sound of it. I continued through the beginning of the summer, one chapter a month, working more consistently than I ever had in my life, a little every day, or nearly. I was halfway through the story before I had any detailed framework for the remainder. Even then the project got bigger and bigger. I'd originally imagined a story of six or eight pages, something on the skinny end of the "short story" standard. What emerged in the end could almost claim to be a novella. Jenny, a longtime friend and lover with whom I had a monthly one-on-one writing workshop at that time, grumped that it wasn't going to stop raining until I'd finished the story.
I'd wanted to be a writer since I was a kid; why, I don't know, I just heard the idea put forward by somebody else and decided it was the thing to do. I can barely remember a time when I didn't have at least six novels planned for some future date (the barest sketches of old hacked-out chestnuts, mostly). I'd done a story or two in childhood of my own volition, one or two in high school, plus some good work on assignment there and in college. But most of the time I could barely stay in the chair long enough to put a few words into a sequence. I just kicked ideas back and forth while I walked from class to class, and tried to feel like it made me important.
With Thunderlily began a period of intent concentration on fiction. Like never before I found myself able to stay in that chair, and to return to it whenever I had a moment to give, and it felt wonderful. I haven't always been so devoted since then, it comes and goes as my life permits, but I've never stopped working. I no longer feel like a kid who wants to be a writer; I'm a writer who wishes for an audience.
Thunderlily was my masterpiece. It's not the best thing I ever wrote; it was the sound of my coming to life.
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