The Outsiders resonated with me. Gangs! Teenagers brooding. It was the first novel I couldn’t put down. As there were no gangs in my neighborhood, I decided that I’d become a writing prodigy like S. E. Hinton and imagine my own gang. Could it be mere coincidence that she’d attended Will Rogers High School and then became a famous writer? Can you see why, as a Mark Twain Elementary School student, I saw it as potentially another good omen?
As the antiwar and women’s rights movements flitted onto the local university campus and our TV screen and my teacher discussed the pilgrims fleeing the old country for religious freedom, I began my first novel, untitled, about gangs and rebellion. Boys in the Florida Keys ran away for “Kids’ Freedom.” The first-person narrator told about nine-year-old boys who were fed up with grown-ups’ oppressive control and built a small galleon and sailed away. They survived doldrums, a near mutiny, and neighborhood toughs who built their own boat. I intended to create a Lord of the Flies situation on a deserted and craggy archipelago, even though I wasn’t yet aware of that particular book. My point wasn’t about the innate brutality of human beings but about resourcefulness and invulnerability, independence while still being embraced by the preferred group.
Eventually, that toot of a book was stashed in my home office along with a thousand pages of unpublished drivel. It wasn’t profound, though it was perhaps auspicious, but only for being my first attempt at a novel. It was written in pencil, in sloppy cursive, in the manner of boys toward the end of the sixties.
That novel was a grand total of eight pages long before I ran out of steam. I wanted so badly to be a writer and was willing to play the role, but clearly, I did not yet have enough to say. Perhaps Ben Franklin would’ve been disappointed in my lack of industriousness. I know I disappointed myself. I was way too self-critical, especially at nine, when I was struggling to make sense of why my inner and outer worlds were so incongruent. In retrospect, I was just neurotic, but at the time, I had no idea what all that entailed, including the self-flagellation. The Outsiders captured how I felt inside as I began my own novel as wish fulfillment. I, too, wanted to break free of household and church demands and be more than I was, to be strong and invulnerable and independent and respected. Meanwhile, I redoubled my efforts to create a more attractive exterior and cooler behavior patterns so that I would better fit in with my social environment and avoid criticism.