So, at the ripe old age of nine or so, I decided to write stories. Yep. I was ready for it. A VOCATION IN DISQUIET, at nine.
A grade school teacher assigned us a Halloween project: write a story of the season. Rule #1: It can’t be more than a page and a half long (200 words or so). Rule #2: Do NOT copy somebody else’s story and pass it off as your own!
All right, it seemed straight-forward to me. You got it, Bucko. I received a blast of familiarity: I somehow knew writing. It was an element deep in the soul, a dormant seed perhaps, waiting for some rainwater to make it germinate. Anyway, I felt it was the one thing I could actually do right for school, considering that the only creative thing I’d done up ‘til then was the infamous Noodle Incident. With respect to the casualties, we won’t get into details of the event; let’s just say that trauma for many is hard to get over. Come to think of it, it’s been 36 years later, and I still haven’t heard whether Lunch Lady Mavis ever adjusted to life outside the Institute for the Grade School Shellshocked. Ah, well, that’s ancient history. I’m not the … *cough* … kid I used to be.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: the title of this h’yeer blog post states something about plagiarism. Good ol’ Mikey must have plagiarized his first short story! Nope. Wrong. You’re batting a hundred, Jack, get off the Diamond. Matter-of-fact, I jumped into my own original work with gusto. The neophyte attempt was a mystery: who was pulling off the Halloween pranks at school? I was clever! I was artistic! I was a literary genius! The very words I wrote would have inspired TS Eliot: … and so the guys wanted to go to every locker and see if there was stuff in them that the guy who was doing the pranks used, and then they would all know who did the pranks. The guy who did the pranks would be in trouble.
Supra genius work. At nine, believe it or not. This same writer would go on to write more … uhh … things.
Well, anyway, just like the brat in that movie based on Jean Shepard’s nostalgic story concerning 1940 Christmas time, I was certain the teaching staff and my classmates would all bow and humble themselves before me after my work was leaked out to the school. I wondered what sort of prize I would achieve, being the greatest writer ever having gone to the Monticello Elementary School in, well, Monticello Utah. I don’t think the frontiers people there were too creative in what they named their businesses and civic institutions. Maybe it was because they were still ploughing fields with spades and using oxen to drag their wagons. Hmm. Interesting social study. Anyway, I was definitely the most spectacular cultural gem in the rough. So, you can understand why the big, capital, red-marked D on my story shook me to my very core. Philistines! Just how DUMB was the teacher? Never mind the comments: “poor grammar” “poor spelling.” Grammar didn’t have rein over the arts, I wailed. Writing a short story was in the domain of the imagination! Not regulated by some Rule Nazi!
Let’s take a step back a second. A diversion. Prior to then, my only creative attempt to win recognition, outside of coming up with reasons why I hadn’t done last night’s homework, had been an entry to name the school’s newspaper. Two girls, budding editors, had stood up in front of the class and presented the contest. The winner would get a certificate! One of the girls gave an example: a name like Black Lightning (off the top of her head, of course). So, my ever-creative noggin came up with TUH DUH! Black Lightning. Well, the girl had suggested it, so, umm, she should like it, right? *cough* Well, no mention, no nothing, of course, in the contest. The actual winner came up with The Monticello Elementary School Gazette, or some rot. The creative genius in me was not so creative after all – but who was counting? And what the hell was a gazette anyway? It wasn’t an African deer … antelope, was it? And so I thought, why not just name the paper the Monticello Elementary School Antelope?
Hmm. I didn’t like entertaining the possibility there were non-writers among my classmates who may be more creative than I. Bah!
Despite my limitations in vocabulary, the writer within was desperately trying to emerge. One school night, while playing with my assortment of Hot Wheels cars (vroom!) and gaggle of plastic dinosaurs and enjoying the immense task of world-building (thank you, Mister Tolkien), I was interrupted by my mother who demanded I come in for supper and to do my homework. This was, of course, reality butting into my ambition of raw creativity – a villain who would constantly plague me throughout my years. As I gazed forlornly at the world I’d built, a voice in my head (not too unlike the voice in the W.P. Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe – you know, the one that became the movie Field of Dreams) suggested that if I wrote it all down, the world would survive. It would be there in the morning, fertile with all the fun and imagination and I had created the night before.
In the attic of my mother’s rental existed hundreds of books. I climbed the stairway to the stars and read them over long summer days while my friends were playing in their own fields, while girls rode bicycles; in those last fading days of cultural innocence in the lives of adolescence, long before the advent of video games and the Internet and pirated porn, violence-peddling, a kid still went outside to play. Yet, within the walls of the words, the beautiful Halls of Literature, I found worlds quite beyond those of my schoolyard chums.
My own writing grew and flourished, my grammar became stronger, my vocabulary larger. I told my mother I wanted to read one of my short stories to the class, but felt inadequate. She, taking pity on me, collaborated a comedy concerning a giant turkey, shaving cream, and the First Thanksgiving. It was all hers, really, but I put my name on it and read it before the class. There was uproarious laughter; the story was a hit! I was the toast of the school and the class! Err, with my mommy’s … uh … story.
The class – the teacher – liked it so much, they wanted me to read them my stories every Friday. Glowing from the commission of being the GREAT literary genius I was (never mind the fact that the story I’d read didn’t belong to me) I decided, once again, to read another author’s works in lieu of my own. The reason for this was no doubt because I felt my own works to be immature and underdeveloped, and so wanting to make an impression, decided to copy, word-for-word, O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” No one would know the difference. And the story was so clever! If my classmates liked the silly piece about the giant turkey and the shaving cream, they would be in awe of MY divine skill at Mikey’s “Gift of the Magi.” *cough*
Well, I read it, anticipating the kudos and gasps of wonder at what was certainly mine but received instead of glazed eyes and the unison of scratching heads and a smirk on the teacher’s face that I didn’t understand at the time. I took my seat among the silent rabble still glowing, still anticipating the pats on the back for a job well done. These were not forthcoming.
Flushed with the notion that I’d done something wrong, I didn’t offer to read anymore short stories before the class. If they hated O. Henry, I thought, definitely they would hate my silly little dog and Godzilla stories. In the indifferent silence of the classroom in the months ahead, I began to realize the wisdom that O. Henry was a little too sophisticated for my 5th grade chums and that the teacher, no doubt at least possessing a Bachelor’s Degree from a university (teachers get that, you know), was quite familiar with “Gift of the Magi”. There was no correction. No taking aside and lectured about the pitfalls of plagiarism.
I retreated from the public eye, suddenly embarrassed with my meager attempt to pass something off as my own, and getting hit hard by …,
Yet, the dog stories and the adventures with Godzilla (my boyhood hero) would still blossom and rampage through the college-ruled theme notebooks.