My Great Uncle Johnny was a genius. He had little in the way of education, as he was a country boy that spent his school days working on his father’s farm. He had little in the way of books to read or conversations to learn from. But everyone is a genius somehow, and with Johnny, it was working with his hands. From a young age, he could fix things—taking things apart and putting them back together at age six or younger. So, when he went to his Aunt Ruthie’s house and saw her coo coo clock was broken, he ached to take it apart and see what was in it.
Her father had carried it from Germany when he immigrated, the only real possession he’d had, and she was not about to let anything happen to it. It was right twice a day and, for her, that was enough. The entire family was dirt poor and this heirloom was too valuable to be chanced to a nine-year-old boy and his ability.
One day, while my grandma and Johnny were at her house, Aunt Ruthie needed to go to town. She made sure to reaffirm that Johnny was not to touch that clock. She grabbed her hat, pulled herself into her truck, and disappeared around the bend for the half-day jaunt. Johnny immediately pulled the clock down and got to work.
He had a butter knife and a pocket knife, and with these tools, he began breaking down an antique clock. My grandma came in from the farm, raging that she was doing the all the chores her aunt had given them by herself. She stormed into the kitchen and froze in terror.
There on the table sat hundreds of tiny cogs and springs—tiny, so as to be barely seen, and too numerous to count. They covered the table, the surface of all six chairs, the floor and parts of the counter. As she watched, Johnny slowly, meticulously pulled more and more from the corpse of the clock.
“Johnny,” she yelled. “What have you done? Aunt Ruthie is going to kill you. She is gonna beat me for not stopping you! We are as good as dead!”
But Johnny couldn’t look up. He extended his hands, his eyes locked frantically on the clock before him. “I have it,” he said, with a voice otherworldly in its calm. “Don’t make me look up. I have it now. If I look up, I will lose it all.”
And he was right. Johnny was in the moment. His nine-year-old mind had the clock mastered. There, with his head down working, he had an intricate map of every sprocket, every wheel. He knew it all, and should he lose his train of thought for just one moment, it would all be gone, smoke on the wind, a brief puff before all of it would blow away.
I am writing 25 books that, when all finished, will tell one story. They span five series and dozens of plots and subplots. I have it all in my mind—hundreds of characters and scores of settings all laid out before me. When I am working, it is one spring, one cog at a time. When I am in the work, walking the world and breathing in the sights, there is nothing else, no distractions, just clarion thought and a power trembling on the verge of godhood. But I am not a god.
Johnny knew, and his story has taught me. If I look up for a moment, if I let myself get distracted and walk away for an instant, it will all blow away. The books I have planned, the books I am writing, are all spread out where I can see them. I just pray I never have to look up.
When he put it all back together, Johnny had fixed that clock. But he never looked up until the last cog had been placed on the last stretched spring.