April 3, 2016

Writing Without Dreams


Iíve always maintained in the books and columns and interviews and elsewhere that when I fell into the writing game in my early twenties, it was more a fluke than anything else. I hadnít gone to J-School, didnít get an English degree, and in fact had never taken any kind of writing class. Unlike so many others I knew who never became writers, I never harbored any burning desire to become a writer when I was growing up. I wanted to be a seismologist. Just sat down one day and wrote a little story on a slow afternoon in Philly, not expecting anything at all to come of it. All that is true, but that doesnít mean Iíd never written anything before.

††††††††††† My first published stories, it only occurs to me now, came out when I was in sixth grade. Unlike Stephen King or Richard Matheson or so many others who had their first stories published in national pulp magazines and the like, mine appeared in the Bulldog, which was the name of the Allouez Grade School newspaper. There was only one issue that Iím aware of, and the teacher who oversaw it, Mr. Larsen, even made me an editor. He was always nudging me into things like that.

††††††††††† Jesus, that reminds me of something else. Okay, let me back up here a second to a few months before the school newspaper fiasco.

††††††††††† Mr. Larsen was a Language Arts teacher (which is what they called English back then). He was a hep, easygoing guy who gave us Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel lyrics as examples of modern poetry, and had us read selections from Beowulf (specifically the battle with Grendel, which remains to this day the most vividly, grotesquely violent thing Iíve ever read). He also had us write stories based on vague, inoffensive scenarios heíd hand out. Other teachers had done that in the past, but unlike those others, Mr. Larsen would have us read our own stories aloud in front of the class. Mortifying as that thought is, whatís happened over the past thirty years may well have been his fault.

††††††††††† See, as heavily steeped as I was at the time in Ernie Kovacs, Monty Python, James Thurber and Fredric Brown, I tended to take his boring scenarios and run a little wild with them, turning them, in my own ten-year-old way, into over the top absurdist comedy sketches. They were nasty and bloody and mean-spirited and violent, but I also thought they were pretty funny. The only scenario I recall now involved a kid going into a candy store and not being able to make up his mind, which I wrote from the perspective of the increasingly infuriated counterman, complete with bleeped expletives. The most damning thing was, when I stepped nervously up to the lectern and started reading , the other kids in class actually laughed, and laughed much harder than I expected. Didnít the little morons know this would only encourage me?

††††††††††† When the school newspaperóreally just a six-page mimeographed thing, came up a few months later, Mr. Larsen made me entertainment editor. Iím not sure why. It was a bad idea then and a bad idea now, as back then I couldnít bring myself to edit down the future Rev. Norbís hilarious twelve-page review of Ralph Bakshiís animated fantasy film Wizards. For my own part, I wrote a scathing review of a sleazy Jaws knockoff killer animal novel titled Alligator (no relation to the 1980 film), in which I complained bitterly about the novelís lack of bloodshed and low body count. Elsewhere in the paper, I also wrote a story about the recent Presidential Fitness Initiative track and field event, in which every sixth-grader in the city was compelled to participate (thank you very much, Mr. Kennedy). I guess that would be my debut stab at a first-person account of public humiliation.

††††††††††† Given the paper was only distributed to the other kids in class, and considering most every kid in the class had at least one story crammed in there someplace, I didnít really think anything of it. It was a goof, but that was all, and the paper as a whole kinda stank.

††††††††††† That summer, less inspired by the newspaper experience than just bored, I started adapting mystery and horror short stories I liked into miserable and clunky little screenplays that went nowhere, even after I worked out all the camera angles and special effects. I must have written four or five of them that summer, most averaging about six or seven pages. After that I never much thought about writing screenplays again.

††††††††††† When I was thirteen, my first angry letter to the editor appeared in the Green Bay Press Gazette. My mom still has it around someplace, but Iíd rather not think about it.

††††††††††† When I was in my junior and senior years, I was conscripted to be on East Highís English team for the newly-founded citywide academic competition. It was a noble idea, really, an effort to give academics the same kind of cutthroat clout normally only afforded high school sports. In a town like Green Bay it was of course doomed from the start, but bless them for trying. Every high school entered five-member English, Science, Math and History teams. None of the other schools gave us much of a thought, as East was the scrubby school where all the poor kids went. We liked that perception. It made us feel like the Bad News Bears or something.

††††††††††† For the English teams, there were several rounds of literary trivia questions, with a forty-five minute break in the middle, during which each remaining participant had to whip up an essay in response to a topic that was only revealed at that time. We ended up crushing the competition both years, mostly thanks to our academic advisor, Ms. Appel, who would not accept anything short of a decisive and absolute victory. I forgot what the essay topic was that last year, but I remember writing something about depression and suicide, as they were much on my mind those days. Well, that of course was a gimme, sort of like an actor playing a retard. Before the final round of questions, which took place on the stage of a packed auditorium at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay, some earnest hippie professor chick stood at a lectern and read my essay aloud in an earnest hippie chick way that made my flesh crawl. I guess Iíd won or something. Rather than accepting the nod as some kind of encouragement to keep writing and set my sights on a Pulitzer or Nobel down the line, I think I soured on the thought for a long time. More than anything, the humiliation of having my essay read aloud by some hippie chick made me want to go home and kill myself all the more.

††††††††††† Shortly before graduation, and as a direct result of that competition hoo-hah, the editor of the school paper asked me to do a piece on the two students who would be giving the commencement addresses that year. They were both friends of mine, so I figured they wouldnít mind if I had a little fun with it. Well, in the end the editor (or maybe the editorís pet hamster) chopped my story all to hell, hacked out most of the punch lines, and left the whole thing an incoherent mess. Although it pissed the hell out of me at first, in the end I dismissed it with a shrug. Writing was never part of the plan, after all, just a thing that would be forgotten soon enough. Sometimes, given a few of the editors Iíve had to contend with over the years, I wish Iíd remembered that experience and pursued my real dream of becoming a seismologist.

††††††††††† Looking back on all this, itís hard to believe writing was never in the back of my mind all the while, lurking about like a slug in my subconscious, but it really wasnít. I had plenty of other plans. Still, three years after that school paper nightmare, I found myself coming home from work at the porn shop in Madison about nine at night or so, then sitting down in front of the typewriter until three or four, pecking away at what would eventually become an absolutely execrable four-hundred page novel written from the perspective of a schizophrenic. I not only never let anyone read any of it, I never even told anyone I was working on it. But I pretty much forgot all about that, too, thank goodness, when I headed off to grad school. No, none of it meant a goddamn thing. By the time Iíd hit Philly, Iíd forgotten about all of it.

††††††††††† All I can say now is, thank god for the pre-Internet age, as none of the above-mentioned stories exist anywhere in any form anymore, for which I am deeply grateful.


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