Chapter Nine

Mansfield University was home to a literary magazine called Edge City. It went defunct for several years before being resurrected when I was a senior.

I was very excited. I hadn’t published anything since high school and wanted to feel that rush again. I had been working on some poetry writing courtesy of a website called “The Magnetic Fridge.” It was a site reminiscent of Magnetic Poetry, but you could put your poems online. I loved that site and spent more time that I really should have piecing together and posting poems.

I submitted one of those poems to Edge City and it was chosen for publication. I called it “Coffee Cafe.”

smart chick

alienated by academic loneliness

eyes a bohemian slacker

poring over Nietzche

amid the rich aromas

of cinnamon and amaretto

casually

she eases up to him

and despairs as he

kisses the pretty waitress

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Chapter Eight

College brought my writing to a new level. I think part of the reason was because I was a small fish in a big pond, and I wanted to prove that I could swim with the sharks. I think, too, I wanted my professors to like and be impressed with me. I guess I’m something of a teacher’s pet although, as I teacher, I can’t stand teacher’s pets.

When I first went to college, my declared major was psychology. I planned to minor in criminal justice, so I could later go to Quantico and get into the FBI.

I went to the wrong college for that dream.

Luckily, I went to the right college for me. My freshman composition class changed my life. The professor, a charming man who reminded me of a character right out of Dickens, recommended that I work for the Student Writing Center. At that point, I already had a work-study job so I declined. I did, however, keep his class and his acknowledgements of my writing in mind when I switched to a new major: English education.

I wrote a lot of papers in the next four years. Most of them mine. I got a lot of A’s. One A- that still grates on my nerves.

Still, I never thought of writing beyond its place in academia. I enjoyed writing, was good at writing, but I didn’t view writing as a viable career. Sure, it sounded great, but what were the chances of earning a good living off writing?

So, I chose a path that would lead me into teaching.

But I had just a few creative writing opportunities, perhaps just enough to keep me interested…

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Chapter Seven

In my high school, as with many schools across the nation, there was local participation in the Prom Promise program. It shows up during the week before the prom, and its purpose is to encourage high school students not to drink and drive during the prom season and the rest of the year as well.

I think I was a junior (maybe a senior) the year that one of the Prom Promise events was an essay contest. I don’t recall any of the specific parameters of the contest; I think it was just a prompt to write something about Prom Promise.

Rather than an essay on the ills of drinking and driving, I decided to do a fictional account of a girl who learned the hard way. I wrote the essay quickly and turned it in, and it was one of those rare times that I was fully confident of my writing.

I won. It was a contest with the winning essay being published in the local newspaper, and I won. I still have the yellowed clipping that prefaces my story by saying that it was fiction. There were still a couple of people (those who don’t read introductions and who skip right to the meat of the story) who asked if it had really happened. I suppose that says something.

Again, I look back and find the flaws. The title is lame. There are contradictions and clichés. It was preachy in spots. Still, I see a couple of spots that show promise. A cleverly turned phrase or two that make me nod my head with a hesitant appreciation of potential talent.

Then, I remember that I’m reading my own writing and feel embarrassed to have thought highly of myself at all. I’m not programmed to be much more than humble and modest.

Rather than post the essay in its entirety, here are two paragraphs. The first one bothers me for its immaturity, its lack of realism and reliance on all that is trite and mundane. The second one I like better for the stark imagery, though I still wish I could go back and improve it…

The pouring rain made the entire cemetery look dark and almost sad. (Almost sad? What does it take to make it wholly sad?) Water streamed off the tombstones and gathered in small puddles around the discarded flowers of grieving relatives and friends. The minister’s voice seemed to drone on and on, only being drowned (funny since it’s raining) out by the distant thunder and someone’s sobs. I was later told that I had been the one sobbing uncontrollably. I didn’t even notice; I was too numb. (I say I didn’t notice but I must have. And really? How numb can one be if one is sobbing uncontrollably?)…

…Carl had been driving too fast, and he didn’t notice the sign warning us that the bridge was out. The car flew into the river and started to sink. I must have been able to swim out because the paramedics found me wandering the river bank, screaming for Carl. They found Carl in the car, still wearing his seatbelt…

Promising. Not genius. Not great. But maybe a little bit promising? Perhaps I’m too close to the matter to be an objective judge.

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Chapter Six

How many stories have I lost?

This question popped, unbidden and unpopular, into my head last night as I pondered where to go next in my lexical journey. From “A Christmas Story” I intended to transition to what is now going to be Chapter Seven (“The Broken Prom Promise”…I know; you can hardly wait.).

But then, I paused to think. A dangerous and often counterproductive task. Follow me on this one:

Hmm…I wonder if I did any writing between eighth grade and my junior year. I must have, right? Let’s see…Oh, yeah! I did that independent study project on horror stories! I must have done five or six writings for that! And I don’t have any of them any more…Well. Crap.

Yeah, it was something like that. I went on a horror kick one year…(Okay, truth. I love horror and suspense and have been hooked on both since my Scooby Doo days)…

Anyway, as part of this independent study project I did one year, I decided to write some horror stories. Except I got lazy and procrastinated, so it really became snippets of horror stories. Then, to fill out my fluff, I compiled excerpts from some of my favorite horror stories and novels. Pretty lame. I’m surprised they even gave me a passing grade. I amped it up in the following years by doing computer animation and oil painting. But I digress to toot my own horn…

So, I don’t remember most of what went into that type-written sheaf of papers. I do remember, however, that I did some of my writing while obsessed with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and after reading Stephen King’s first Gunslinger book. The reason that I remember is that I married the two in a story of a gun-slinging vampire.

And you know, now that I write that, I wonder if maybe it’s best that some writings are lost and gone forever from this world…

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Chapter Five

In eighth grade, I was published for the first time.

Never mind that everyone in my class was also published or that it was in the Christmas edition of our local newspaper. All that mattered to me was that I was published. And that my Grandma had bragging rights that she fully exercised.

So, here is that tale, cleverly entitled “A Christmas Story.” I guess it’s okay for a fourteen-year-old kid…

The old man sat at the table, wrapped in a blanket, eating his supper. As usual, it consisted of some venison, a potato or two, and a glass of milk. Though the house was warm and there was food on the table, the man, whose name was Henry, was not happy. It was Christmas Eve.

For most people, Christmas Eve is as happy a time as Christmas Day. For Henry, it was dismal. His wife, Martha, had passed away some years before, therefore, she wasn’t around to help decorate the tree, which stood nearly bare in the corner. Not only that, but he missed her company terribly.

His children had grown up and moved away, too far to visit. They usually sent a letter and pictures, sometimes a present, but that was it. Because of this, Henry became a gruff, sometimes mean, man…though he never meant to.

Christmas  morning soon rolled around and Henry got up early, from habit, and started a fire in the fireplace to warm up the chilly house. He then took some oatmeal from the cupboard for his breakfast.

Setting it on the stove, he left it to cook and went to the door. As with any morning (Christmas was no exception), he went out to bring in firewood…despite the fact that there was a box full of logs already inside.

Stepping outside, he stubbed his toe on a box sitting on the doorstep. As he bent over slowly, he tried to figure out who it was from. It couldn’t have been from the mailman; he would’ve left it by the mail box. So, shrugging his shoulders, he took it inside. He then set it on the table and finished getting his breakfast.

When his oatmeal was done, he turned back and proceeded to open the box. Inside, to his disbelief, he found a turkey and everything else you can imagine having for a Christmas dinner. Staring at the contents of the box, he was startled out of his daze by a knock at the door. He closed the box and hobbled over to see who was there.

Upon opening the door, he found his two sons standing there, with packages in their hands. A single tear of joy rolled down his wrinkled cheek as he let his sons in.

It’s not great. I suppose it’s barely good. I had decent grammar. The storyline was okay, if a bit overly sentimental. There are some glaring inconsistencies that make me cringe as I read it now.

Still…it was my first published piece. And that kind of makes me pretty happy.

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Chapter Four

Adverbs. I used to love adverbs. I have to admit that I would still love adverbs (especially those ending in -ly) were it not for Stephen King’s book On Writing. He pointed out the folly and excess of using adverbs, and I have since tried to drop them from my writing whenever possible. Hey, I’ll admit it. I’m something of a follower, but since in this case, I’m following a master…I think it’s forgivable.

Adverbs have not always been passe to me. In seventh grade, they gave me a valuable lesson in grammar. They also gave me a valuable lesson in how to capture an audience.

Mrs. Sliwinski was my seventh grade English teacher. Seventh grade English could have been a destructive class. All spelling and grammar and very little literature. (Insert snore here.) Somehow, she managed to make it fun. Or maybe I’m just that big a nerd. Either/Or…

Anyway, she did try to make grammar interesting and hands-on. My favorite lesson was, obviously, one on adverbs. We had learned what they were and how to use them, so it was time to put her instruction to use. We were given the assignment to write a story about an animal and we had to use adverbs.

Well, the people around me were writing about their fluffy kittens and their playful pups. Saccharine, sweet, and pedantic. I wanted to do something different. I thought about writing a story about cows since I lived on a farm, but when you live in dairy country, everyone has a farm or access to one.

So, I stole an idea. I decided to write a story about a shark. A shark attack, to be precise. (Yeah, yeah…I can hear the score to Jaws playing in my head, too.) I started the story with the heroine, Kristy, swimming (slowly, lazily, languorously? I don’t remember…). As she swam, a shark attacked her. If I think about it, I probably pretty much stole the opening shark attack from the movie. Because I couldn’t bear to have an unhappy ending, though, I saved Kristy. At the last possible moment, a boat arrived, someone grabbed her flailing arm, and she was pulled aboard the ship.

The story was probably mediocre by my current standards. Pretty decent by seventh grade standards, perhaps.

What I remember about that story is the audience response. Mrs. Sliwinkski read the story aloud, and as she read about Kristy’s miraculous rescue, there was a collective burst of air from the lungs of my peers.

Everyone had been holding their breaths, afraid to breathe lest they miss a single word (probably an adverb).

I still smile when I think of that moment. Of how I made people hold their breathes with my words. Of how they wanted to know what happened next, how it would all turn out.

That’s a pretty cool feeling. And I’d like to feel it again and again.

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Chapter Three

In sixth grade, we had a student teacher. I don’t remember her name, but we all fell in love with her. She was sweet and smart, but mostly, she was pretty. The boys loved her for obvious reasons. The girls loved her because we all wanted to be her.

Things were simpler then.

One of the assignments that she gave us was a writing assignment. I don’t remember the details of the assignment, but I remember that I wrote about pirates. Using the 5×8 tablet that the school provided us, I wrote page after page of pirate adventure. I wrote with great excitement and enthusiasm, but I suspect that was because I wanted to impress the student teacher. Like everyone else, I was clamoring for her favor and attention. The student who was complimented by her was a celebrity for the rest of the day.

She read my story. Out loud. I was in heaven.

My classmates hung on her every word. I wish I could believe it was because my words were so enthralling.

I suspect, however, that had she been reading the back of a box for hemorrhoid cream she would have gotten the same interest and attentiveness.

I’m a writer. But I’m also a realist.

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