If I believed in destinies, I’d be likely to say that writing was mine.
Yep, even in spite of two failed NaNoWriMo attempts, it’s always been something that I enjoyed, and a skill at which I believed myself to be relatively capable. Someday – if I ever get off my ass – I hope you’ll be able to pick me up at your nearest Hudson Bookseller during your connection in Houston or wherever and be, at a minimum, mildly entertained by my words as you complete your travels.
But perhaps it’s in the nature of destinies to be shaken once in a while?
Mine was, recently, as I was digging through a harmless-looking box of childhood artifacts at my mom’s house over Christmas vacation. Nestled among the frayed ballet shoes and “thank you for participating!” softball trophies, I discovered a collection of books that were “published” each year by my elementary school teachers, grades two through five.
Whoa. I’d forgotten all about these! As I fingered their spiral bindings, I suddenly remembered the thrill I’d felt when our annual creative writing projects were laminated as keepsakes.
The only problem is that these “books” are…so hilariously bad. I mean, what do you expect from an eight-year-old? Or even a ten-year-old? But still. My husband and I were doubled over with laughter as we read through them.
Let’s start with the earliest one…second grade, age 7:
Like most budding authors, I responsibly opted to cut my teeth on a collection of short stories, rather than diving right into a novel. (And I’m sure that many markers were drained in the painstakingly thorough coloring of that unicorn outline.)
Upon opening this volume, the reader is immediately presented with a reminder of both ownership and authorship:
Whew. Because if this thing got lost….
Beautiful Animal Stories is a diverse compilation of compact tales largely about kittens, ponies, butterflies and doves. I’ll choose to share just one selection with you, a coming-of-age drama called “The Twin Baby Hearts.”
Touching on themes of incest and growing up too fast, this dark tale is helpfully accompanied by chronological illustrations of the title characters engaged in their nefarious conduct. It it worth noting that the male protagonist, described as a “carpender,” was actually meant to be a builder of treehouses and not a killer of runty freshwater fish.
Third grade, age eight, brought my first real novel, the cleverly-entitled Cat-astrophe.
Capturing the hearts of animal lovers everywhere, this story chronicles the adventures of a pair of siblings who secretly rescue a kitten from their modern suburban yard. Shortly thereafter, they learn that the family is relocating…somewhat surprisingly, given the demonstrated era, via covered wagon. They shall travel from their current home in Bismarck, ND to Sacramento, CA (someone was studying her state capitals!)
The irony of Cat-astrophe is that there really is no conflict here. When the parents discover a cat on board the wagon, they cheerfully endorse its presence, saying that it will help with the mice in their new frontier home.
Insightful commentary on the benefits of pet ownership despite historical ambiguity? Or a rip-off of Little House On The Prairie? You decide.
It’s also worth noting that, without exception, my early works contained an “About The Author” section at the end of the book. This year’s edition was especially detailed, spanning a full six pages – nearly a third of the book’s total volume.
Just in case you missed it the first time – MY HOUSE WAS GREEN.
In fourth grade, age nine, I branched out and created my first work in the mystery/suspense genre:
Fourth grade was also the year that I learned how to type (exciting!) and mastered (er…sort of) the art of the paragrph.
As for the storyline here…well, it’s pretty damn weak. A family goes camping (at the same campground my family used to go when I was a kid!) and then goes hiking (on the same hike we used to go on!), whence they’re stuck by a surprise snowstorm. The ever-resourceful children build an igloo for the family to take shelter, but they can’t escape the ominous signs that appear each night.
(Illustration at its finest.)
Finally, after, like a week with no food and increasingly menacing omens, someone in the family remembers that they know how to make smoke signals (ORLY? finally?) and the group is plucked from the mountain via chopper, never to uncover the source of their mysterious haunter.
Plot resolution FAIL.
But it was fifth grade, age ten, brought the most embarrassing book of all.
And it was called I’ll Never Baby-Sit in an Amusement Park Again. You remember the movie “Adventures in Babysitting,” right? Featuring a young Elisabeth Shue?
Well, I went ahead and took that movie’s noble concept and copied it, creating an eight-page adventure-drama around the concept of a frenzied-yet-clever babysitter named Megan who happens to lose her charge at the fairgrounds. In order to earn enough money to buy a hot dog to keep up her strength to continue searching (yes, really, I wish I was kidding)…she is forced to sell herself into an impromptu manufactured pop group whose name alone makes Saved By The Bell’s ZACK ATTACK seem downright hipster:
So hot. So cool. So…not either one.
Also: major FAIL at understanding the concept of an AIR GUITAR:
A shiny, new air guitar. Um. It’s not an actual physical object. OMG, ten-year-old me…just stop.
Reading it for the first time in over twenty years, I couldn’t exactly explain why, but this last book made me cringe in a way that the others didn’t.
By all objective accounts, I’ll Never Babysit in an Amusement Park Again was the best story I’d written to date. The book’s spiral-bound pages were filled with actual writing, rather than halfhearted illustrations or lengthy autobiographies. It contained proper paragraph usage and (mostly) correct spelling and grammar. It had a feisty main character and a plot that – although borrowed – made sense. It had a beginning, a conflict, a climax, and a resolution.
Flipping through the flimsy pages a week later, it hit me. The source of uneasiness was that this was the first time I’d tried to write for an audience.
Because in the fifth grade? I’d never actually babysat before. I was trying to write from the perspective of movie characters I’d come to idolize. (And book characters too….I fancied myself a Claudia with a dash of Stacy, but, honestly, I was probably more of a Kristy mixed with a little bit of Mary Ann.)
So why is reading this fifth-grade piece so terrifying? Because. At the time, I thought it was a great idea to “reach” and write from a slightly different (i.e., slightly more mature) perspective, and I was probably sure that I would nail it – reading this little booklet, I actually remember feeling triumphant about it.
But in retrospect, it fell totally flat – even for a fifth grader.
The process of reading my own early writings has actually reinforced a theory I’ve had about fiction writing for a while:
(1) Write what you know very well; or
(2) Write what you don’t know at all.
When I started my last (slightly lapsed) novel (the one I shared a snippet of!), I decided to write from the perspective of an adolescent male. As I begun writing, I was somehow quite positive that a male perspective was the right way to go – but I couldn’t really explain why. I think it’s because I could more easily get inside the head of a person who wasn’t ever me. Which is easier sometimes.
Anyway, this random introspective post has been brought to you by my childhood student-author aspirations. And by beer:
A bottle or two of New Holland’s Mad Hatter IPA fueled this post. This is an easy-drinking IPA: you’ll definitely notice the hops, but they aren’t all that puckery. Quite a lot of grapefruity citrus in this beer. 5.2% ABV.
Bottom line: As an IPA fan, I wouldn’t necessarily buy this again for the hop factor, but I’ll say that for an IPA it’s a very mild and drinkable beer! (Purchased at Bottle Revolution, $2/12 oz)
Please tell me I wasn’t the only one who wrote embarrassing stuff as a kid. Did your elementary have this self-publishing system, too?