It started with an obsession.
At the age of 12, Paul Ruffin, now a proud professor with a Ph.D. and numerous publications under his belt, was just like any other 12-year-old boy. He went to the circus and fell for a pretty girl that he never, ever spoke to. Like any other 12-year-old, regardless of gender, he held on to that first love. Later, he wondered what had happened to her and began to almost obsess over her. Out of that single seed of obsession grew an ivy-like imagination that crept and crawled its way through publication after publication after publication.
The pretty girl was a tight rope walker, a magical, “silver, ethereal creature” that scaled a wire high above crowds of curious, awe-struck onlookers. To the 12-year-old Ruffin, this girl was simply an angel, though so skinny that he “could see every vertebrae in her spine” and with thin shoulderblades he mistook for “nubs where angel wings should have sprouted.”
Years after his circus excursion, he wrote a poem about his experience, which he drew upon to write an essay, which he drew upon to write a short story. He was constantly “In Search of the Tightrope Walker,” the highly appropriate title of this particular short story.
What Ruffin taught our small, curious crowd of students and faculty members, in a voice that clearly showcased his Southern roots, was that inspiration can creep up out of nowhere. As a writer of a weekly column, he showed that inspiration is everywhere. It can be found in the silliest of questions or the wildest of dreams. It can be the possible answer to a question that we just quite couldn’t answer at some point, or possibly even the life story of someone that we met for the briefest of moments or the one, single person that we’d always wished that we had.
Life is full of unanswered questions and unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Ruffin simply sought to answer his own empty question, and did so in a tragically beautiful way that seemed to move nearly every soul scattered throughout the room.
Ruffin is currently a professor with the English department and the 2009 Texas Poet Laureate. “In Search of the Tightrope Walker” is from Jesus in the Mist, a collection of short stories published in 2007. Ruffin has also written and co-edited 14 other publications.