“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” ― Anaïs Nin
Late Fall – 1979
When I was 16-years-old and a ninth-grader at Riviera Junior High, John Perry, a friend from Ms. Allen’s English class, sidled up to me one December day as we lined up to go to the cafeteria for first-period lunch. John was one of the few regular students who saw beyond my cerebral palsy and enjoyed talking with me during our 30-minute lunch break. We also had much in common: we liked Star Wars, military aircraft, girls, and writing.
“Hi,” John said. He had a barely repressed look of excitement that said Wait till you hear what I have to tell you!
“Hi,” I replied. “What’s up?”
Well, you know how you’ve always said that you want to be a writer, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course. I want to take a creative writing class next year. You know that.”
“I do know that, Alex,” John said. “And I’m still bummed out that you haven’t taken Journalism with me in Mrs. Heller’s class. You’d like it, buddy.”
I looked sullenly at my beat up sneakers, which had once been white but were now splattered with multicolored stains of green grass, brown mud, and dirty gray asphalt.
We’d had this talk several times since the start of the academic year; I had shown John some of my first short stories – badly typed and thinly plotted action-adventures set mostly during World War II – at the end of eighth grade. He didn’t think I was my generation’s Ernest Hemingway and said my fiction was too derivative and not well-developed. But he saw that with practice and patience, I could tell compelling stories. John said he thought I had…potential.
Before the end of the 1978-1979 school year, John told me to ask my homeroom teacher, Mr. Coats, to sign me up for journalism as an elective. “It’s not creative writing,” John said, “but at least you’ll learn about news reporting and editing. You’ll also get articles published in the school paper. You can do it, buddy.”
I nodded politely as if in agreement, but that ancient nemesis of writers – self-doubt – grabbed a hold of my heart with a vise-like GI Joe Kung Fu grip. Inside my head I heard a soft but insistent voice speak with a mocking tone: You? A reporter? The same kid that slept with the light on till he was 12 now wants to be a reporter and interview people? Ha! Don’t make me laugh.
But as Sylvia Plath points out in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath,
The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
I often heard my mom and some of my teachers tell me what a gift for language I had and that I could be a good writer if I worked hard at it. But these expressions of support and confidence in my potential as a storyteller were more often drowned out by cruel comments from kids my age, including bon mots such as:
“You want to be a writer? Only sissies want to read books and write stories.”
“Writer? Who do you think you are? Stephen King?”
“You’ll never make money with your crappy stories. Grow up and think about getting a real job.”
In addition, I felt embarrassed about my spastic cerebral palsy (CP) and its attendant inconveniences. CP affects my ability to control my muscles and dexterity. I have a tendency to twitch restlessly even when I’m not physically active, a condition that is more noticeable when I’m nervous or angry. I’m also not the steadiest of walkers and I can often have exasperating instances of clumsiness. I also tend to slur my words if I don’t take the time to enunciate properly and sound as though I’ve consumed a six-pack of beer.
So even as John Perry said, “You can do it, buddy,” a soft insidious voice in my mind said, “No, you can’t.”
I listened to my inner demon and allowed Mr. Coats (who was retiring at the end of the year) choose my courses for me. I didn’t mention Mrs. Heller, journalism, or the school paper. Instead, I passively allowed my Special Ed home room teacher to place me – yet again – in such edifying classes as Home Economics and Wood Shop.
All of these memories flashed in my head as I stared downcast at my not-too-clean sneakers. I felt like such an utter failure – and not exactly for the first time during my years at Riviera, if truth be told.
“Hey, Earth to Alex,” said John in a not-too-convincing Mission Control voice. “I got news for you.”
“What?” I asked.
“Well,” said John in his normal voice, “I told Mrs. Heller that you like history and that you can write okay. She wants you to write a guest article about the 1970s for the school paper.”
“Way!” John shot back. “It doesn’t have to cover everything – The Ram’s Horn doesn’t have that much page space. Just cover the highlights.”
I didn’t know journalism jargon at the time, and I didn’t quite hear the word “deadline” often enough in that context, so I asked John when it was due.
“Oh, you need to get it done by Thursday morning,” John said. “But today is Monday, so if you work on it during home room Tuesday and Wednesday, you can give it to Mrs. Heller before third period on Thursday.” He looked at me and saw that I had an expression full of self-doubt. “Come on, Alex. You can do this,” John said earnestly.
I almost said “No” right there and then. I was scared of all the possible negative outcomes if I said “Yes.” What if I didn’t choose the right historical highlights of the 1970s? What if I wrote too many words? Or not enough words? What if I handed in a really crappy article and ended up looking like Riviera’s biggest loser?
But something inside me – perhaps a vision of my dad spinning in his grave because I was afraid of writing my first published article – stirred and squashed the hateful little demon in my mind that always said, No, you can’t. Or maybe I just wanted to impress a pretty cheerleader in my math class on whom I had a crush. It doesn’t matter much now what the impulse was, really. But at that moment I felt a strong desire to do something I had not done before – write an article for the school paper.
For the next two days, I sat in Mr. Coats’ home room, tap-tap-tapping away on the heavy and gray IBM Selectric typewriter that we Special Ed students shared in order to type our homework assignments. I’d take breaks to rest my typing fingers and to do research about the highlights I had chosen.
By the time I finished my draft article, I ended up with over 700 words about such topics as the post-1969 Apollo Moon missions, the end of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the resignation of President Nixon, the election of Jimmy Carter, and the then-ongoing Iran hostage crisis. I also covered cultural events, such as the breakup of the Beatles, the popularity of disco music, and the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’s Star Wars.
I only had time to type one draft, so I had to hand it in “as is.” I wasn’t much of a typist then, so I’m sure the article was pockmarked with typos, crossed out words and hastily revised sentences, and even clunky purple prose. I handed Mrs. Heller the three or four pages of my copy and gave her an apologetic look.
Mrs. Heller was a kind-faced woman in her late 40s or early 50s. Her gray hair was done up in a fashionable perm. She also wore what I call teacher’s eyeglasses, the ones with tortoiseshell frames and the retainers known as chums. “Thank you, Alex,” Mrs. Heller said. “John says you are a good writer. I’m sure we’ll publish it in the January issue.”
True to her word, my article was published on the front page of The Ram’s Horn two weeks after school was back in session following the winter holiday. Once again, I was told that I had made Page One in a similar way to the way I had found out that Mrs. Heller wanted me to write the guest article: John Perry told me as we were lining up to go to lunch.
This time, though, my reaction was as giddy as it was clumsy. I was so excited when my friend said “You made the front page, man!” that I leaped up like a teenaged Jack-in-the-box. I didn’t have any gymnastics training, but I attempted to do a 180-degree spin in mid-air.
Alas, my feet became entangled in mid-jump, and instead of landing gracefully standing upright, I fell rather messily, butt-first, on the hard concrete of the school corridor. Luckily, I hadn’t fallen from a great height, so the only major injuries I sustained were a sore rear end and a slightly bruised ego.
In spite of this Keystone Kops-like moment, I was proud of myself for the first time in years. I had been asked to write something for a school publication, and I had come through. On top of that, my article had made the front page. It wasn’t the lead story, mind you, but it was my first published byline.