Tuesday, September 20, 2005

On Writing (and little green men)

After a couple of weeks off to write, polish, and submit The Toll Collectors, I’ve refocused my efforts on finishing my novel, which means there’s little to report. There’s progress aplenty, but I suspect if I were to document it in detail, it’d look a lot like this:

Wrote five pages today. Brilliant. Utterly, utterly brilliant. Best pages ever.

Read yesterday’s pages. Crap. Utter, utter crap. Worst pages ever.

And so on. So rather than boring you with the details of slogging away at my work-in-progress, I’ve decided to regale you with a tale of adventure, intrigue, and aliens. A tale of my loftiest literary achievement to date. A tale of my first-ever award for writing.

I was six years old.

I remember sitting on the institutional metal chair, my feet swinging free several inches above the floor. I was nervous, and I had reason to be – I wasn’t the kind of kid that got called down to the principal’s office with any regularity. In fact, I couldn’t remember ever having been called down to the principal’s office, though certainly I’d heard the stories. Yelling. Crying. Calls to parents. I wasn’t sure what I’d done, but I was sure it couldn’t be good.

The door to the principal’s office swung open, and out came a kid a couple of years older than me, eyes rimmed with red. He looked like he’d just been to war. I watched him disappear out of sight down the hall with growing dread. I was told I could go in. Reluctantly, I did.

The principal, a Mr. Hayburn, I believe, was leaning against the corner of the cheap metal desk when I came in. He told me to take a seat. He towered over me as I sat in that chair, and I was sure that at any second, he’d begin to scream, or breathe fire, or something equally terrifying. Instead, he handed me several sheets of loose-leaf paper, carefully stapled together.

He asked me if I recognized it. I did. It was a story I’d written for class, entitled The Alien Death From Outer Space. It was three pages long, and lavishly illustrated; I still remember gleefully wearing my red crayon down to nothing as I waged my epic battle between man and beast, the fate of Earth hanging in the balance. My recollection of the story is hazy, and doubtless colored by my mother’s many retellings, but I believe it went like this:

Aliens came from outer space.

They killed a lot of people.

We fought back, and killed them all.

Note the strong three-act (er, sentence) structure, the economy of prose. I’m sure that that was precisely what Mr. Hayburn had noted, that and not the violent Techicolor carnage. He asked me several questions about the story, and I answered them as best I could. I have no idea what he or I said, really. All I remember is that I was terribly relieved he wasn’t yelling. He seemed very friendly, in fact – he smiled and nodded at all my answers, and in the end he gave me a Hershey bar, and made me swear not to tell anyone where I got it.

At the time, I was sure that my story was so fantastic that I’d been called down to the principal’s office and rewarded. Now I realize that I was questioned and given a bribe in the interests of me not killing my fellow students. Either way, there’s a lesson to be learned – if you can scare the pants off of your audience, you will be rewarded. Of course, those were more innocent times; today, I’d have just been put on some sort of federal watch-list. Maybe then I’d have been inspired to become a First Amendment lawyer.

A funny post-script – when I strolled through the front door that evening, I was munching happily on my newly-won candy bar, and my mother asked me where I got it. Not one to renege on a deal, I shrugged and said nothing. She of course freaked and made me tell her where I got it. So be careful what you say to a kid – they may take it pretty literally. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up creating a writer.