My Terrible Mistake

I published my first story when I was thirteen. I have that in common with Ray Bradbury.

Actually, I published two of them. So take that Bradbury!

That’s probably the only thing I have in common with him. Maybe there’s other things. Maybe we both don’t like pineapples. Stuff like that. But really, as a writer, that’s probably the only thing.

It’s not really anything extraordinary. I was in Junior High School. In Language Arts, we had a teacher named Misses Emery, a red haired, portly matron of very fixed opinions, who made us write stories.

I did this thing called ‘The Monster Race.’ Basically, aliens come to earth, and after a brief friendly first contact, they start reading up on us and discover we are horrible people. But it’s too late, by the time they figure out we’re bad news, we slaughter them, reverse engineer their spaceship, and now we’re out in the Universe, spreading like a virus.

I suspect it wasn’t especially brilliant. It’s the sort of thing a precocious thirteen year old with a cynical streak might write in the early 1970’s, or … the 1930’s. But she was impressed enough by it that she sent it to the local newspaper, the Dalhousie News, and they published it.

Wow!

They changed the title to ‘The Master Race,’ which I found a little embarrassing. I think that might have had something to do with bad handwriting.  I really didn’t know what to think of the whole thing. I was shy, and I had discovered that the attention of other people was seldom a good thing.

My second story, a couple of weeks later, was more literary. Two brothers fighting who come to realize that they have much more in common. She liked that one a lot, so she submitted it. And hey, the local newspaper published it! So that was two!

So far as I can recall, that was the only times that happened. Not just me, for anyone. I don’t think publishing short fiction in the local newspaper was a thing at all, or that it happened. I might have been the first and last. Or possibly not. I suspect that I wasn’t a particularly observant thirteen year old. But I’d like to think I was just a little bit special.

The Dalhousie News shut down many many years ago. Both stories are long, long, long gone. I doubt that there’s even archival copies on microfiche or some other obsolete format. Which is probably a good thing. I suspect that the stories are best sealed in a lead lined cannister and dropped in the ocean.

Decades later, I did find a clipping of “The Master Race” in my maternal Memare’s scrapbook when I was visiting her up in Saint John. It was an odd sensation to find it there, partly embarrassment, but partly love and affection, knowing that there was someone who treasured me enough to treasure that. I find it hard to feel loved. Not love, I feel that and its probably my sole redeeming quality as a human being. But to feel it back, to know that I am loved… that’s hard, even when I know it’s there. And when I feel it, I’m not sure what to do with it. It confuses me.

But I’ll always remember and treasure that strange confusion, that peculiar evidence of being loved, in that moment when I found it, when it’s ordinary and inescapable. Not spoken, not expressed, but a simple little clipping in a scrapbook, evidence that someone cherished you enough to preserve this little piece of your life.

I will admit, back then, I liked stories with rocketships in them.  I think my first exposure was when I was really young, getting my tonsils out at the local hospital. I was there overnight, and my mother was a Nurse supervisor, so she brought me some of the magazines from the hospital to read, and a couple were old pulps. Cheap magazines with rockets on the cover.

I liked stories of exotic places and exotic people. The further away from the Norman Rockwell upbringing, the more I wanted to read about it. Here and now? I was living there. Who cared?

Conan didn’t interest me. Doc Savage? Nope. The truth was, power fantasies didn’t appeal to me at all.

I loved Tarzan, but I loved the Tarzan who visited valleys of dinosaurs, inner earths, ant-men, relic roman civilisations and lost cities. I loved Doctor Doolittle, and Charlie once he got away from the damned chocolate factory and had real adventures.

But it was my third story that changed my life.

I’d fallen out of favour with Misses Emery. I think it was about taking a Steinbach book home one night so I could read it to the end. Back then, our school didn’t have enough books for all the students, so that Steinbach book was shared with three or four other classes – taking it home to read was a ‘no no.’  So I read Steinbach all the way through that night and brought it back the next morning, but she caught me and was quite unhappy.

The third story was basically about a man who is out snowmobiling with his friends. The snowmobile breaks down, and he’s left behind. He has to walk back home through the woods through the deep snow. The only place he can walk is in the tracks of the snowmobiles where the snow is packed down hard enough to support him. It’s cold, he’s walking, and he finds the wrecks of his friend’s snowmobile, and his friend’s bodies, and he knows there’s something terrible watching him. But he can’t go back, and he can’t stay, all he can do is keep walking past the bodies of his friends. After a while, he hears footsteps behind him…

I’ll be honest, a thirteen year old was writing it, so it’s probably not that great. Looking back, I think the idea isn’t bad. The Twilight Zone was on TV so I think maybe that had an influence.

I remember working extra hard on it. I think I may been trying to impress Misses Emery and get back in her good graces. Maybe I was even trying to get published in the newpaper again. I think I’d come to feel it was a good thing, an accomplishment. It was nice to think I’d managed to be good at something.

At that age, we are all desperately hungry for affirmation. Anything you find yourself good at, you seize onto it for whatever you’re worth, trying to build an identity from it, trying to cultivate some self respect, some accomplishment.

Neither of those things happened, and lightning didn’t strike a third time.

But what did happen was my father took it to the Mill when he went into work one night and showed it to all his friends and co-workers there. I was thirteen years old, shy and insecure, and my Dad was a giant of a man who could do anything. And somehow, I’d impressed him. I’d managed to do something that he bragged about, took to the mill and showed people.

Wow.

That’s a life changing moment right there.

My Dad talked about how maybe I’d make a good journalist. In our industrial town, that was as close as anyone could come to imagining a career as a writer. Being a reporter. When I got to University, that was actually the path I wanted to follow, and I got heavily involved in newspapers.

I think that was also, one of those moments when I knew I wanted to be a writer. There were moments before, I talk about the Batman and the blackboard story. There were moments after. But back then, that was one of the key moments.

Not that I immediately started writing story after story, working on my first novel, etc. Come on, it was a hardscrabble industrial town, and everyone worked, even the kids. Summers I helped out at the garage, and worked the drive in in the evening. The sort of culture and community, the family support, that would have developed me as a young storyteller just didn’t exist. The sort of support that makes a Christopher Paolini wasn’t there.

But in my private moments, in my head, I was telling stories. I even tried to write some of them down, I may have even finished a few. All of those the few finished and many unfinished are long gone, that’s probably a good thing. Any good ideas from that time, I’ve probably recycled into something worthwhile later on. I was a writer in my own mind, if nowhere else.

But that third story, that was the one I wished I had been able to keep. I tried re-creating twenty years later, but of course, you can’t step your foot into the same river twice. It was a different story. But I’m fond of it, because it reminds me of that moment.

I graduated, did University, had my flirtation with Journalism. No creative writing courses, of course. No writing programs, no fine arts, my north shore, backwoods, small town origins were too relentlessly practical for anything so frivolous. Journalism, Teaching, Law, these were practical ways to make a living. Being a ‘writer’?  Nah.

So I told stories in my head, with half assed efforts to write them down. I was not sure what to do with them once written, so there was no urgency to finish anything. I think I may have submitted some to places, but if I did, they didn’t go anywhere. We all get caught up in living and all that comes with that..

Fifteen years later, my grandfather died. There’s something clarifying about having your nose rubbed in mortality.  I asked myself what it was all about? What was the point. What did I want to do with my life?

And the answer was right there.

I wanted to be a writer.

That’s when I got serious and systematic about it, and started writing steadily. Writing stories. Writing and writing.  I loved stories. I made them up in my head all the time. I invented characters, settings, worlds. Did I really want to go through a mundane life, all these stories, these ideas, these impulses all locked away in my head until I died and then they’d all be gone? Did I really want to drift through life only ever reading? If I had any kind of talent, and I wanted to believe that I did, was I just going to waste it writing reports and briefs and memoranda, bury it all in triviality and minutae? Was that the whole point of things? Just to march through life to the end, doing what you’re supposed to do, taking care of things and meeting expectations and then what… die? What did I want to do with my life?  I wanted to write.

I think that was probably my big mistake.

But maybe I’d been waiting my whole life to make it.

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