My grade-school teachers chose my creative writing to read aloud in class. It gave me a distorted sense of my writing talent and how much effort it took to get past literary gatekeepers. It was easy peasy, right? I wrote “The Clock,” a jaunty poem about a talking clock. There wasn’t enough time for everyone to read aloud, so the teacher picked a couple of students, and I remember thinking, “Pick me! Pick me!”—unlike in PE—and then she picked me. I had a reputation as a budding writer, so I presented “The Clock” at the head of the class. Did they clap? I can’t remember if they applauded, but I imagine a classroom full of fourth-graders vigorously clapping for me. Other than blowing out birthday candles, had anyone ever clapped for me before? It egged me on; that’s my point.
Flush with success, I wrote “The Foolish Unicorn,” a short-short story about why there are no unicorns today (hint: Noah’s flood). My teacher was again impressed, so she chose me to write a humorous advertisement to present to the entire grade school over the intercom during a play’s intermission. I’d never written for such a large guaranteed audience before or been under such an individualized spotlight, and the pressure made my crotch go numb. Would they think I was funny? I wasn’t a funny guy. I was too serious, which bummed out my peers, who didn’t seem the least bit concerned about death and the afterlife and God and infinity. When I tried to be funny, it came off as mean-spirited, like a celebrity roast, or I simply bombed, and then that was funny (to everyone but me). I should’ve learned my lesson while I was still in the single digits. But I was a life neophyte when I spoke into the microphone attached to the metal panel and glass dials. Over that intercom, I felt not only significant but also eminent. Remember, hubris was my thing, too—another lesson I hadn’t yet learned. My mouth set me up for the inevitable fall. I wanted everyone to see that I was more than just the squinting, sniffing, unmedicated kid who avoided swine flu shots and eye exams and sucked at sports.
And then I bombed. Or at least, I assumed that I bombed because nobody said anything at all. Remember, I was one of those people who thought that silence was criticism. That was a cognitive distortion, I now understand, and I highly recommend against it. It’s mind reading, personalizing, and catastrophizing. But I’d heard that if I couldn’t say something nice, I shouldn’t say anything at all. Although I hadn’t yet integrated that lesson into my own social-skills programming, I assumed that my peers had. I figured that they were supposed to stop in midsentence, pull me to them, wrap their arms around me, and tell me how my radio ad had really socked it to ’em, baby!
That was my first disappointment with fiction. However, despite my yowling, my family of origin also trained me to be an optimist. So, I went to the playground to figure out my failure and disappointment as I bailed out of the swing or rolled an old car tire around, things I could do alone while I pondered life. The drive to fit in and be admired didn’t diminish, despite my intercom flop. It grew, in fact, because I had more to prove. Just because the tumbleweeds and I were piled in the playground corner didn’t mean that I wasn’t feisty. Some people misinterpreted my shyness and aloneness as weakness. Those same people were sometimes unpleasantly surprised. Remember, I used to pick up bees by their wings. I eventually did swan dives off the high dive. I had a mixed record with bullies; sometimes they got away with it and other times they were surprised that there was fight in a skinny dog. It was the same part of me that had scratched my initials into the hot tar. When Neil Diamond sang, “I am…I said,” in our teal 1964 Bel Air station wagon, it inspired me. “Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of bein’ a king?”
I wanted to shout, “I’m a Mark Twain frog. I exist! I am!” I’d wear the skin of a novelist even if no one at Mark Twain Elementary School understood me. It wasn’t horrible writing, I concluded; my humor was merely too dry for my peers. I just needed some fresh material.
The monthly book club selections arrived, but they’d sent the wrong books. My teacher asked me, “Would you rather have this joke book or the Ben Franklin biography?” Although she held the Ben Franklin book next to her smile as if selling toothpaste, I wanted the joke book. In fact, I needed it. I needed an arsenal of sharp retorts to use against anyone foolish enough to insult me. Seems there was never any dearth of offensive people, especially considering that ignoring me offended me. With billions of people on this planet, if I didn’t watch out, I could be tremendously put off.
The expectant face of my teacher was the same face that had chosen me to read that ad over the intercom. Plus, there was also the pitiful face of Marsden, the boy who’d receive my leftovers. Those faces and my desire to please prompted me to say, “Ben Franklin.” Oh, how Marsden’s face lit up! And my teacher, well, she thought I was still a serious student, a writer, a compassionate boy with exceptional value, or at least as much value as the other kids squirming at their hard, wooden desks had. I successfully faked the color of an intellectual.
I wasn’t just being nice. Didn’t teachers prefer smart students? But did I need Marsden to like me, too? Meh. Still, I could use allies. That Ben Franklin book never got read—OK, it never got opened—but at least I stayed on everyone’s good side, albeit I felt like a sandwich quarter.
I wasn’t into biographies back then. Conan novels were cool, but ultimately, fantasy didn’t do it for me, either. They didn’t resonate enough with my experience. Still, a big part of me wanted to be a badass like Conan the Barbarian was. Ratty Snake the Barbarian.
The problem was that I wasn’t Conan material. My fantasy world was always richer than my real life was, and then I felt bad about the incongruence and tried to enliven my real life to come closer to the fantasy. Neither one—inner life or outer life—was as authentic as my emotions were at the time, and I’d learned to quash them, at least on the outside, so nobody would accuse me of not knowing the Truth and then whining about it. For the record, nobody ever asked about my truth; it was always about others’ truth and their insistence that I buy into it.