Apropos of nothing: Was reading in comments to a Mike Flynn blog post about how he came to be a writer, more accurately, a story-teller, and started in thinking of why I, with little success as success is usually counted, want to tell stories. In other words, what follows is autobiographical navel-gazing. You’ve been warned. Here goes:
We were not a literary family. Mom read Reader’s Digest condensed novels, a brother or two read the sports pages. Nobody that I can remember read to us when we were little. In a way, it’s a little amazing more than half of us 9 kids got through college – three of us overcompensated with Masters (one of my sisters has *3*); one even got a JD.
Dad always thought and said that education was for getting a job. He himself had pursued all sorts of vo-tech stuff, back in the day, learning first how to do office work (he decided early on being an Oklahoma farm boy was not his vocation) and then how to do everything in sheet metal fabrication. He stayed home during WWII – a crack welder with two small children was the kind of guy they were happy to have stay to help build and repair stuff.
So education = job prep. Reading was something mom did in her very limited free time, or guys did to see how the pennant race was going.
Let’s say I didn’t fit in. Didn’t learn to read until I was 6, I think because nobody showed me how. I remember learning phonics (dark time, 1964!) and going wow! THAT’s how it works! and driving the family nuts for a few weeks sounding out every street sign and billboard that went by as we drove.
(This is also when I had my first splash of cold water in school: I LOVED to read, and did it very well – and so teacher never called on me in class. She would ask, I’d practically jump out of my seat, hand held high – and never got called on. Because – and this logic baffled me then – because I could do it. But I had to stay in class anyway…)
Discovered the school library in 4th grade. Tore through the Time-Life Science books – picture books with science-lite in them, but good enough for a kid. I even read a college level history of Rome (have no idea what it was doing in a grade school library, but there it was) because one of those Iowa basic tests said I read at a college level in like 5th grade, and so, literalist that I was, thought I should start reading college level books. Well, I could sound out all the words, sure, and knew 99% of the vocabulary, but I don’t think I was quite ready intellectually. At any rate, don’t think I learned much. Did muscle through the whole thing.
Around the same time, due to the accident of there being a series of short books in the bookcase under the windows in the 5th grade classroom, I read a lot of biographies. Mostly American heroes. I’d learned that if I sat in the back and didn’t bother anybody, the teacher would leave me alone. I sat in the back near that bookcase, and wold grab a volume when I thought no one was looking. So I began the habit of ignoring what went on in class and surreptitiously reading something. Became my M.O. well into college, when I discovered I couldn’t pass the classes if I didn’t pay attention. Go figure.
I early developed this bias that a serious reader read real stuff, not that frou-frou fiction stuff. In my innocence, I thought Time-Life science books were real stuff. Wasn’t until about 6th grade that I got into fiction – science fiction. Bradbury was my first love, followed by Asimov. By my junior year in high school, I’d switched to philosophy – Plato, mainly – because I’d decided to go to St. John’s College and thought I’d get a head start.
But there were mom’s Readers Digest condensed books lying around the house, so I read those. Occasionally somebody would suggest something and I’d read it (read Lord of the Rings, was not impressed. Hey, I was young and stupid. Now at least I’m not young). And I’d thumbed through hundreds of books at the Whittier Public Library, read a few on fairly random topics (e.g., frogs, ancient maps, paleoanthropology). No program, just pulling stuff off the shelves.
What does this have to do with story-telling? Outside Bradbury, Asimov and Star Trek TOS, I din’t really have much experience even hearing stories, let alone telling them. Nobody I knew wrote much of anything. The world of writing was as distant and theoretical as the world of doctors, lawyers and professors. The typical adult I knew was a welder or a housewife. The kids I knew read comic books if they read anything.
In college I discovered a new world, where everybody, it seems, was the son or daughter of a lawyer or doctor, everybody had read a ton of books, people kept folders or files with stuff they wrote in it, and all in all treated this intellectual stuff as if it were work! As if it had value.
Sometime after college I discovered that I really liked writing. By then, I’d hacked my way through the Great Books as well as a more broad selection of fiction. But emotionally, it was never real work, the results were of mere mystical value, not like the sheet metal buildings and cabinets my dad turned out. Always felt weirdly guilty about writing, and could hardly work up the perseverance to finish anything very long – I mean, it’s not like it has any value…
My wife, in a fit of inexplicable foolishness, married me when I was 29 and almost an adult. We had our first child in 1991, with additions roughly 2 years apart until we hit 4 in 1997. I built a weird bunk bed – queen on the bottom, twin on the top – out of scrap lumber (we still have it). To give my poor wife a break, I’d put the kids to bed – I’d lay in the bottom bunk, 2, 3, or 4 kids cuddled up next to me.
And tell stories. Eventually, I’d let each child pick one or two characters and then try to work them into a story. Got pretty weird, with video game characters, Disney princesses, made up creatures (that would come with rambling dissertations about exactly what they were like and what powers they had, and woe to dad if he forgot to work those into the story!) and so on.
It was a challenge and a delight. Must have told several hundred of those stories over the years. Perfect audience. The race was to see if they would fall asleep before I did – even money.
Then the kids wanted to tell stories, too. I served as stenographer to the two oldest and the Caboose. Hope I can find those stories to embarrass them at their weddings.
Then came this blog. Here I can write as long or short a piece as I want and just throw it out there. Well over a 1,000 posts and 1,000,000 words. I suppose that counts for something, like carving a statue out of a grain of rice – cool, sorta, but why?
There’s now this pile of story ideas and drafts and even a few completed ones. Couple novel outlines. I had hoped to get into it more about a year ago, but then life got really complicated – no, really, much more complicated than it had been, with many additional obligations which sap my time and energy. So – maybe next year.
Either I’ll learn how to work around life, life will get a bit simpler, or it won’t.