Once in a while I run into someone interested in writing who asks me how I got started.
The answer is — the God’s honest truth — I don’t know how I got started. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. Well, I can, but I confess, I needed a diaper change at the time.
As soon as I escaped the clutches of Attila the Bun, my first-grade teacher, I began writing. You couldn’t read most of it, of course. The Bun had scared me so much my handwriting was lousy.
Or maybe I just came by it naturally.
The lousy handwriting, I mean, not the writing.
You should have been there the day the state of Connecticut took it into its mind to send an old lady around to our eighth-grade classroom to check out our penmanship. She was a rare old bird. Had a New England accent you could slice with a saw. Gave us half sheets of rough paper and began reading words off a list. I had no problem until she said, “Struhbruzz.”
“Huh?” I thought. “What the %$#@! is struhbruzz?”
So I scribbled STRUHBRUZZ. But then she said “ruhsbruzz” and I managed to hear around the potatoes in her mouth. Hurriedly erasing, I wrote “strawberries” and “raspberries.”
After we got done with that she handed us another half sheet of paper and told us to write 150 words on anything we wanted.
“The moon is a small bit of planetesimal matter ...” I began.
I had been reading, of course. Back then, for a while after I read something, I could regurgitate it fairly well. Sad! These days I have to write my name on my wrist so I don’t forget it.
After she got done grading papers, she called us up one at a time.
“Thomas,” she told me, “your handwriting is nothing to brag about, but you certainly know a lot about science.”
Hah! Faked her out! She gave me a B. Should have been an F.
It seems to me that I learned something new about writing in each year of school. Back on Staten Island in the third-grade, I learned how to write a kind of poem — I forget what you call it — where you take a word and write a line about each of the letters.
You know? MOTHER?
“M is for the million things you gave me.”
“O means only that you’re growing old.”
“T is for the ...”
Hey, don’t blame me! I didn’t write it. It’s an old song.
In the third-grade in PS 16, they made us write one about HALLOWEEN. That was the first time I ever had to get up during assembly and read what I had written in front of the whole school.
The last time too. I’m a little slow, but I learn.
Reading poems during assembly is bad for your health. You have to spend the next week handing guys their heads after school. It was a good thing I could fight. Otherwise I’d have died young.
I know just one line of that poem: “A is for the apples the witches do use to make the big bumps in the back of their shoes.”
Something that dumb ain’t worth dying for.
Anyway, as soon as The Bun et al got tired of trying to teach me the Palmer system of handwriting, and actually taught me some words, I began stringing them into sentences.
Why? Beats me. I just did.
And so can you. Why not? Just write what you’re thinking.
Hey, give it a shot. It’s not only fun, but writing gives you the power to direct attention away from this too-often miserable world, getting people thinking right and feeling good. Works like the “Wizard of Oz.” Remember? “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” When you write something, it diverts attention away from some of the crappier parts of life.
It pays too. Remember my B on that handwriting test?
There was one time in my sophomore year in high school when my English teacher wrote a comment on one of my “A” papers. “This is a remarkable sentence!” The sentence covered three quarters of the whole first page. It had more clauses in it than a contract between two lawyers. I hope you don’t think it was an accident.
Like most writers I wrote some short stories when I first started out.
Science fiction. Lost them somewhere over the years.
Thank you, Lord! They were terrible.
First short story that ever made me any money was one I wrote for a contest in the San Francisco Bay Area while stationed in California. Made $100, back in 1961 when a hundred bucks would feed my small family for a few weeks. I spent half of it on a portable typewriter, used it to write a story that brought in $150, bought an electric typewriter — and off to the races!
Like anybody else, I had to work hard to get my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, physics and biology in 1975, but when I took my master’s in 1980 I discovered something interesting. Every class required a term paper. People hated doing them and put them off as long as possible. Not me. Being sneaky, I did my research, typed up a paper within three days after getting the assignment, and earned an A in every course. Didn’t matter much what I did on the exams.
Teachers will recognize what is happening. There’s a thing called the “halo effect.” It means that when you come across a student who does one thing really well you tend to judge all his work by that one thing. I’ve read studies which show that the same test paper, written in good handwriting and in poor handwriting, is likely to earn an F from the teacher who gets stuck with the lousy handwriting and an A from one who gets the pretty stuff.
One of the guys taking the same courses I was taking asked me how I always managed to find something appropriate to write about. I told him I didn’t. I just wrote what I wanted to write, making sure it was interesting. I could actually write about anything.
We were taking a course called School-Community Relations. “Baloney,” he told me.
“OK, give me a subject and I’ll do my term paper on it.”
He grinned. “The Panama Canal.”
You guessed it. I wrote the paper and got an A on it.
So grab your pencil and give it shot. What can you lose?