Friday, March 27, 2009

Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing...

Note: Any rumors you might have heard as to the existence of "Free Kittens" are to be regarded with suspicion. "Free Kitten" is an oxymoron. When I spend my time in veterinary waiting rooms, you get reminiscences of novels past.

You have been warned. (The cats are doing just fine, btw... the little pickpockets) ~ Scott


I began writing my first novel in the fourth grade. Every writer says that, I suppose, but it's worth dwelling on these things on rainy days. Where was I? Oh! Right... The Fourth Grade. 

I can’t say for certain that it was the cause of me taking up the pen at this time, but it happened to be the point when dad began handing me Things To Read. Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain… dad's desert island list of great authors and titles. I didn’t like White Fang but I loved Treasure Island. I just couldn’t get into Dracula or Frankenstein, and didn’t much like Ivanhoe.

I had opinions and wasn’t afraid to express them (except for White Fang which I pretended to like because for some reason it seemed like I should) and dad guided me in the directions my tastes seemed to be leading. I can’t say this injection of classics to the juvenile paper I was shifting was the tipping point toward being a writer. I can say with 100% certainty that it’s the reason my boyhood reminiscences are often woven of wildly divergent and overlapping themes and reading levels. To this day, I never disdain to read a book that was "beneath" me and never feared to assay a book that was allegedly above me. Don't worry; if I don't know something, I'll raise my hand. That's what parents, encyclopedias and dictionaries are for, after all.

If I enjoy it, or think I might enjoy it, I read it. I don’t much care in what section of the bookstore or library it is shelved. Jack P. McGurk, Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, Henry Mulligan & Homer Snodgrass stood alongside Tom, Huck, Holmes & Watson in the misty byways of my imagination. These guys joined Allan Quartermaine & Henry Curtis, David Balfour & Jim Hawkins in a sort of prototype for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (I’m sorry to say Mina Harker wasn’t there, but I don’t really like Epistolary fiction). This reading list – you might note – was very very Boy’s Life. It's only to be expected. Anne of Avonlea doesn't hold a lot of interest for a fourth grade boy (at least it didn't for me).

The television programs I watched and the movies I enjoyed were of the same stripe. I don’t personally believe that this is the Bad Thing that some make it out to be – I turned out just fine, after all with a fully-developed sense of myself in relation to the other gender. I’m personally convinced that one’s attitudes are only formed by one’s fictional choices when there are no countervailing parental attitudes to balance them out. But what do I know?

All of this is a long way around to telling you that I first put pencil to loose-leaf page at the point in my life when active imagination and play is still encouraged yet the real world has become real. As real as the world has ever been for me, anyway. A binder or notebook of clean paper is very much the same as a blank sketchbook to me: Meant To Be Filled. What are you waiting for, kid? Grab a #2 pencil and get crackin’!

The adolescent novel is a direct reflection of all the things you’ve read or seen on the screen up to that point. Everything that you’ve enjoyed and absorbed gets melded and regurgitated in some manner. The verbal equivalent of a Rorschach Inkblot. My literary alter-ego was named “Indiana Perkins” and all the rest of the characters were my schoolmates, focused through the lens of some pop-culture phenomenon ranging from The A Team to Goonies (heavy on the Goonies).

If I was in fourth grade now, I imagine it would be heavy on the Harry Potter. Thus is life.

Lest I take all the credit for this, it's time to confess that I had a co-author. A schoolmate signed on to co-write this piece. Gannon was more popular than I, and being a kid who was painfully shy, insular, unathletic and never “popular” in any real sense of the term. I was the kid that spent his life pretending to be someone else somewhere else -- not because where I was or what I was doing was bad but because it provided a buffer between me and a world that gave me panic attacks. Anyway, Gannon’s name on the cover page made what I/we were doing almost cool, or at least acceptable to the other kids. At the very least, it became a bit less weird. I was only too honored to share the byline (and frequently the blame).

The premise was that of a school trip to another city gone awry, hijacked midflight by terrorists who took our class hostage (Pan Am Flight 73 had a huge impact on us). In the ensuing story, the kids banded together (led by my character and my buddies) in a MacGuyver/A Team sequence of events which were spiced with a healthy dose of Mad Scientist Club for spice. I would credit Toy Soldiers, but it came long after this, no doubt germanated in the fertile imagination of some other kid.

It was fun. It got taken away at various times by various teachers (I never lost a comic book to a teacher, they took away my novel) and it didn't get finished until grade five, but I had a blast writing it. It also taught me more than any writing teacher before or since. I discovered authorial voice and writing my own novel taught me to really LOOK at the things I was reading and watching on TV and I began to understand how to structure a story and how to write dialogue.

My playtime shifted accordingly. My GI Joe men stopped being GI Joes and began taking on personas of my own creation, each with a back-story I created independent of what Hasbro might have put on the back of the box. They worked through full story arcs with complex twist endings and the tale frequently ended badly. They waged personal conflicts, sought revenge for past slights, investigated mysteries, got involved in Flemingesque dramas… and when I discovered Tolkien and Fritz Leiber, I even created medievalish costumes for them out of craft felt and pounded nails flat to make swords and daggers. Shakespearean tragedies and even a strange version of The Ring Cycle were acted out on the conrete floor of my parents' basement.

What that first novel did not teach me was how to collaborate. It should have, but it didn’t. I would like to tell you that ultimately I was far more into it than my coauthor and believed far more strongly that it was worthwhile. Both of those things are/were true but really it’s because I wanted to make things so complex that for other people it began to look like work rather than play.

Or so I guess, I don’t really know because I wasn’t yet self-aware enough to make enquiries.

My penchant for ignoring what was so obvious and prepackaged didn’t enamor me of the other children in any case. In my life I rarely had more than one friend at a time. Honestly this was owing about half to the tendency to live inside my own head to the exclusion of all else, and the rest was because I rarely got through half the explanation of what I was doing or wanted to do before the other kids lost interest.

I would give almost anything to have a copy of that novel. Alas that it has fallen into the dust of history, remembered only by me (and maybe Gannon) as yet another book that only I remember with characters and an author that only I know are missing from the pages of Books In Print.

Photo by Me ... from my collection of antique children's books

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).