September 10, 2007
Teaching Writing Writing Autobiography
My first remembrance of writing does not occur until I was a senior in high school. By that time I was able to write of course, I just don’t remember writing anything. Maybe I didn’t write anything, outside of answers to assignments, or maybe I did and just need a little help remembering. Drawing was a hobby, particularly characters from the Peanuts comic strips, and reading was a favorite past time. Dime novels such as Mack Bolan , and, Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories were especial favorites. Perhaps I don’t remember having any writing assignments because I was a poor student and didn’t advance beyond the lower level classes to those that emphasized writing.
The first thing that I remember writing was a short story called The Taming of the Wild, which was written for a senior level English course taught by Mrs. Anderson. The story, and I still have the original copy, was based on my then fascination with street gangs and their culture, brought upon by the movie The Warriors, which I watched over and over. The first part of the name came from my attempt to emulate William Shakespeare, who I had not yet read, and the second from the perception that street people don’t play by the same rules that the rest of us do. The story’s protagonist, Arnold, wakes up on the top of an inner city building in the middle of the afternoon. He hears noises from the street below and looks over the edge of the building. Lying in a garbage dumpster is the dead body of a woman, presumably killed by Arnold. Arnold does not remember anything that happened the night before, but is seen by bystanders and accused of murdering the woman. He runs, makes contact with his fellow gang members and together they plot how they will hide from the police. By the end of the story the gang is chased into a park by the police, reminiscent of a scene from The Warriors, cornered, and the story concludes with the trapped gang members charging at the police officers. The ending was intentionally left open to interpretation, me trying to be cute, but the inference is that they are killed in a wall og police gunfire.
I remember, well I actually know it since the story is sitting here on the table, getting a good grade and being encouraged to write more by my Mrs. Anderson. I also remember arguing with my friend Bill over whose story was better. We competed about anything and went so far as to keep score over any number of things, like who won more times playing the board game Stratego for instance. His story was about Italian mobsters, who were soon to replace gang members as my chief literary interest.
The summer after graduation my next writing project got started, a sequel to the movie version of The Warriors. I had written the movie’s director, Walter Hill, a letter asking him many many questions about the movie and he replied with a nice letter and a copy of the movie’s script. The movie and Sol Yurick’s novel which it was based upon, were vastly different. The movie ended with the title gang’s remaining members walking off into the sunset, leaving open, at least in my mind, the possibility of more Warrior adventures. My sequel picked up the day after the events of the movie ended and brought back two characters. My favorite character Cleon, who had been killed, and Ajax, who had been arrested. This project never got past the first page. Baseball games, work and my parents coming separation may have acted as distractions. Or perhaps it was the lack of structure that did it in. The feeling of having to do it like I had to do the first story. That one page was the last thing I wrote or attempted to write for another for several years.
Six years go by. Two of them spent in the army and the next four fluctuating between becoming and accountant or a physical therapist. All the while the nagging thought of being a writer never left me alone. At the time accounting and physical therapy were the “hot” careers to go into. They were the industries that promised secure jobs at high wages. They also promised many years spent studying things that I didn’t enjoy and didn’t want to do. But I plodded away at it anyway, got average grades and was generally not what is considered an “engaged” student. One night during this period I had a dream about school. I was in my community college statistics class and was asked by the professor what I wanted to do with my life. “Write!” was my emphatic answer. I remember relating this dream to friends the next day and how I believed it to be some kind of omen or prophecy about what I should do.
What I didn’t do was immediately begin a writing career. I finished that semester, I forget if it was an accounting semester or a physical therapy semester, and registered for accounting classes for the fall. Increasingly I became bored with accounting and by the end of the semester had given up. I was going to quit accounting and take up writing after all. I even want as far as not doing some final assignments causing me to fail a course. That spring, tired of full time studying with no benefit, I enrolled for two non-credit writing classes. One was a screenwriting class at Pittsburgh Fullmakers, when it was still reasonably priced, and the other a creative writing class at community college.
I found the screen writing class to be interesting because I love movies but also found it hard because so much of screenwriting is dialogue based and I was not good at that. The creative writing class was more fun because , at least I think this is why, I hit upon an idea that I loved but couldn’t have been used in the other class. The first couple of weeks of the class were great. The idea was fresh in my head and I had no trouble getting it down on paper. The story was a fictionalized account of the relationship between my mother, named Bettie, and our family dog, named Blue. The plot centered around my mother’s attempts to keep Blue from escaping from her yard. Nothing my mother could do would keep Blue in. The fence didn’t work so an escape wire was strung at the bottom of it. Blue easily pushed through this wire. Wooden blocks and bricks were lined up around the fence. No matter, Blue found a part of the fence that didn’t have them and got out that way. Or she dug under the fence. One day she was spied watching my sister’s cat get out of the yard by first jumping on a tree stump, then jumping onto the top of the fence before climbing over. The stump had to be removed.
Well this story got to be about six or seven hand written pages. It had lots of detail about flowers and lots of witty one-liners by the third person narrator, who was me. (I guess it still is me as I still have this story as well) After a few weeks the “hard” part of writing crept in. That time when the initial excitement over having this great idea has worn off and pages need written because the instructor has called for them. So I quit. Both that class and the screenwriting class. The following summer I ignored the voice in my head telling me to move to California and two years later had an accounting degree which to me was worthless. I did not want to do accounting work and these jobs that I was told were so plentiful were not to be found.
Fast forward seven years and there I was enrolled in a memoir writing class. This one I didn’t quit, though I found the writing to be not much easier. I turned out a few pretty decent stories which I think could be turned into fiction stories should I ever get the combination of time and motivation. During my latest trek through college I have had opportunity to write several short stories and an illustrated children’s book . I now find the writing process to be a little easier and very rewarding. I hope to pursue this further once I am done with school, this time.