On Writing (And Little Green Men)

After a couple of weeks spent writing, polishing, and submitting a short story, 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 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.

The principal—a Mr. Hayburn, I believe—was leaning against the corner of the desk when I came in. He told me to take a seat. I did. He towered over me, and I was sure that 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, titled "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, 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, and not the violent Technicolor carnage, was precisely what Mr. Hayburn had noted. 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 relieved he wasn’t yelling. He seemed friendly, in fact—he smiled and nodded at all my answers, and in the end he gave me a Hershey bar, though he 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 possibly bribed) because they were worried I might kill 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.

A funny postscript—when I strolled through the front door that evening, munching happily on my candy bar, my mother asked me where I got it. Not one to renege on a deal, I shrugged and said nothing. She 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.