A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 7: Letting the past go

I’ve moved four times in just over 20 years. It’s not gotten easier with time. You want to know what it has taught me? Owning stuff is overrated. Even if it is something you have created or treasured.

Yes, I did wind up owning that amount of books. I wound up donating about four boxes worth to Goodwill or the local library. Recently, I’ve had to become very choosy about how many books are in my collection.

It’s a funny situation.

In the summer of 2020, I wound up being the last adult at my house for a couple months. My wife, Laura, had managed to find a great job opportunity in southern Iowa. It was going to be a brave new world for me, who had spent most of my life living in Eastern Iowa, and my wife and two kids, who had lived there for all of their lives.

My wife had actually moved the fall before to our new hometown, installing herself in an efficiency apartment near her work while returning to our home on the weekends and holidays. I’m not sure I really hinted at it that much on this blog at the time, but Summer 2019 – Summer 2020 was one of the weirdest times in my life and my family’s life. I was trying to keep things together – not often perfectly – while working a job that I knew I was going to be leaving at the end of the year. Laura felt like she was missing out on our daughter’s senior year, but she was being too unfair – she had always been part of our kids’ activities and lives, and this was something she was doing for all of us. And, of course, we had COVID happen in the middle of everything and both disrupt my daughter’s senior year, delay my son’s post-high school training, and stop my lame duck year at my school district dead in its tracks.

The biggest change, and the biggest challenge for us, was the house that we had spent the last 12-13 years in. The kids had spent the vast majority of their remembered childhoods in that home. It was the largest home I’ve ever lived in. And we had to clear it out and move whatever we were going to move halfway across the state within a few months.

What we were dealing with after 12-13 years of living in one house with two growing kids. This was our basement circa Spring 2020.

As you can see, there was a lot of stuff to deal with. It included kid junk from several eras of childhood, both my kids’ and my own. It included nick-knacks on top of nick-knacks obtained on a whim for long-forgotten reasons. There was stuff stored behind other stuff and underneath still more stuff that had been long forgotten about by both myself and my wife. There was at least one big pile of newspapers filled with my ramblings about long-forgotten council meetings or interviews with fifth-string candidates in the Iowa Caucuses. Some of it was just short of trash, decorations for holidays that had been made snacks of by the occasional mouse.

All of those things we spent a lifetime collecting and keeping for “when we needed it.” Until the day came when we didn’t need it anymore.

I remembered a specific time when I was faced with a pile of those old newspapers, reminders of a career past when I did my best to let people know about their community even though not everyone read those stories. For a while, they defined who I was.

I sent that entire pile out to the trash hauler. I will tell you that getting rid of that was a massive relief.

There were many nick-knacks that I had kept over the years, items that long lost their meaning. Those went into the hauler, or over to Goodwill. There were so many clothes that I kept just to keep them and they were so far in the back of the closet that they never saw the light of day. I think I remember filling about five or six large black garbage sacks full of clothes and shoes to Goodwill. They got a lot of plus-sized clothes from me, that is for sure.

One thing that I realized:

If you don’t see it and you can’t reach it easily, it’s almost like you don’t own it.

Jason Liegois

There’s very few things that I absolutely had to keep. There are the fiction writings that I’ve generated, off and on, ever since I turned 14. Those are stored in file folders or, nowadays, on external hard drives or flash drives. There are the photos of my family, both hard copies and electronic ones, that we’ve either got up on the walls or stored someplace safe. There are the books that I kept after getting rid of… maybe eight of those boxes of books over the past four years and four of them in that last year alone. If I want a book now, it has to be either high on my list or I go the Amazon Kindle route.

If there is one thing that the move solidified for me, it’s that material things are not the best investment for me. I want to invest in my health and the health of others. I want to spend what excess resources I have on great experiences for me, my wife, and our kids. I want to help them if they need it down the line.

It’s funny, but I’ve been reading (in slow starts and stops) a one-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings. I know a lot of people connect with the humans (naturally) and the elves in that story, but it’s the hobbits that might have made the most connection to me. I can see myself as a version of them, working at a simple job, in a simple hobbit hole in the ground, and spending my time meeting with friends and family over a fire (or maybe watching soccer, lol).

As I get older, I start wanting to simplify things more and more. Leaving some of the things a younger man bought was one of them.

Author’s Note: I debated whether to make this part of the Volume II (my life as a young adult) or the Volume III (my life since I rededicated myself to writing, also known as the present time). By a narrow margin, I decided on titling it in the Volume II section since the things I was getting rid of came from my younger self.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 8: The Old Mississippi

I recently completed my move from Muscatine, Iowa, where I’ve lived for more than 30 of the fortysomething years I’ve lived, to Chariton, Iowa, in south-central Iowa. In many ways, I’m excited about the move – it has been a great professional opportunity for my wife, a good financial move for us, and a good change of pace for me. Being closer to Des Moines might even be helpful for me as far as writing goes – more writers, more people to network with. My wife even has suggested that I start a Chariton or Lucas County writer’s group, but I have to admit that I have no idea how many writers are out there or what type of writing they might do. I’d be open to the idea, however.

It’s going to be the river, however, that I’m going to miss the most.

For more than forty of my years, I have lived a couple miles or so from the Mississippi River. That has been something that I truly treasured. I remembered when I was a little kid, reading something in a National Geographic book about how the Mississippi/Missouri/Ohio river system was the third biggest river system in the world, topped only by the Amazon and the Nile. Heady stuff for a little kid.

I want to describe what this river meant to me, then and now. Doing justice to the subject is a little intimidating, to be honest. I haven’t done much looking at other people’s writings about rivers or the Mississippi in particular.

When I talk about this, I need to be honest. It wasn’t like I was some river rat, hanging out on the shore every weekend or even every month. If I wandered down to the riverfront once every week it was an uncommon occurrence. But the fact that the river was there was reassuring to me. It was a living, breathing river and passageway to me, a place where I could lose myself if I had the chance.

Since I learned that we were going to be moving to South Central Iowa, I’ve been thinking more about my feelings about the Mississippi, some of the ways that I have experienced the river. My old writing group back in Muscatine did a lot of poetry and a lot of writing about our region. I decided to finally try my own hand at poetry, which turned into my current Project C.

So, I’m thinking that maybe a poem might be a good way to maybe get at the way I feel. This is the first time I’ve shown this – be gentle.

NO-MAN’S ISLANDS (A River Story)
2.2019
The thing that The River has over other rivers and streams
is its own land.
Usually, it’s just a dirt road of two-lane blacktop of muddy water
or a four-lane at best.
But The River has its own land, right there tucked in the channel.
Carved and molded and rounded-off by the ever-shifting waters
with no shape but overwhelming mass and motion.
These are the No Man’s Island’s.  
Temporary Sentinels guarding the river for as long as they’re around.
They are for no one for everyone that has a boat
or strong enough swimming stroke.
Some are bare sand, all but ready for a rise in The River
to send it away.
Others are thick jungles, oaks and maples cluttering the interior
and hanging off the banks like a daredevil hanging from a bridge.
They’re perfect for parking your boat,
and getting some sun quota for the day.
You hang out with love behind the trees and bushes
obscuring the view of the jet skiers and party boat passengers and barge crews.
It’s their own little fiefdoms away from the cares and stresses
On Shore.
At least, they are until the snacks and beers in the coolers run out.

I’m planning on trying to do more of that poetry with river themes, as a way of keeping those memories alive with me and keep creative.

There’s no rivers the size of the Mississippi around here. There are some sizable lakes around here, including Lake Rathburn and some others within decent driving range. However, I do have an active railway not a block away from my house. I’m actually living on a highway for the first time in my life, as well.

Maybe its time to try out some train and road poems.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 6: My obsession with soccer

Honestly, there’s been more than a few hints that I’m obsessed with soccer/association football/football.

The origins of the obsession come back to me, in fits and spurts. You have to understand, those of you who only remember 21st century America, that if you were ever transported to late 20th century America, you would find much of it to be familiar, yet there would also be some profound differences. For the purposes of keeping on topic, I’m going to only stick to what it was like for those who had an interest in soccer.

By the time I was growing up, soccer already had a century-plus history in the world under the rules and regulations that had been started up in an English pub around the time of the American Civil War. I knew none of this history growing up. I knew soccer was a game where you kicked the ball and used everything but your hands to move it, but that was it. There weren’t any games I could either watch on TV or hear on the radio, and the first match I ever saw live were the YMCA youth games I played in.

I’m sure I probably looked up the encyclopedia article for soccer at some point, but the first proper book I remember reading about soccer was a small one published by the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO). I forget its name now, other than it was a little green book that went over the rules and general positions for soccer. (They still had the kids line up in a 2-3-5 (Pyramid) formation 30 years after it was obsolete.

It also talked to me about some of the legends who played soccer – Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, George Best, and Shemp Messing and Kyle Rote, Jr. (Americans playing soccer? Impossible). It talked about their exploits in America, in the old North American Soccer League, even though I didn’t know and the book didn’t say that the league was at that moment dying a quiet death.

Pele became my first soccer idol, even though he was retired from playing and I never saw any of his games as a kid. He was just that good, right? I did see him in a World War II movie directed by John Huston called Victory where Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone (what???) were Allied POWs who were challenged to a soccer match by the German National Team in occupied France. Stallone was the goalie and actually looked passable in the role – I learned years later that the former England keeper Gordon Banks had helped coach him. Pele was on the Allied team – they had to make him someone from Trinidad because while Brazil was on the Allied side during WWII, they never sent troops to Europe during the time in history.

Then there was my own limited playing experiences in YMCA soccer. I loved the freeflowing nature of the game, how improvisational you could be with the ball and how you didn’t have to be built a certain way or have a certain look to be successful with it. To be honest, I was a pretty limited player even as a kid – a defensive left back with a good right foot whose main defensive weapon was “get to the ball before the opponents and kick it as hard as I can.” The old English managers would have loved me.

I remember seeing a article in People magazine during the mid to late 80’s, a lifestyle story about Diego Maradona. I was fascinated about him being so small and yet so dominant in soccer, and intrigued about the wild lifestyle the article just hinted at. He became my first soccer antihero.

I vaguely remember there being a World Cup, but I really didn’t get into it until the USA hosted it in 1994. That was the first time I remember the entire tournament being on TV. I specifically remember visiting my then-girlfriend, now-wife, at her mom’s home and randomly turning on the TV to see how the US v. Columbia game was going on. When I saw we were already 2-0, I jumped up shouting and everyone in the house wondered whether I was nuts. I was a fan of the US men’s national team from that moment forward. I guess I was technically a US women’s national team fan from then on, too, but not really until the 1999 Women’s World Cup, when I saw them work their magic.

Ever since then, it’s become easier and easier to feed into my soccer fandom, with better coverage of the game in America and overseas, especially the English Premiere League which I have been addicted to since they began broadcasting those games regularly on American television. It’s been fun to find teams to root for in the different leagues, even ones in Mexico and Germany, among others.

And now, that passion for the sport has bled into my writing world, the Project A that I’ve talked about. I have a great main character from America and it’s been a blast dipping him into the world of soccer, though I think that this character in particular would be interesting no matter what he was doing.

However, I’ve put him in the world of soccer. That’s because, in part, I’m always up for seeing what happens during a good game.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I debated whether this was going to be a Volume I (childhood) entry, a Volume II (young adulthood) entry, or a Volume III (middle age and onwards) entry. I first learned of the sport and played it as a young child, my soccer fandom started as a young adult, and I didn’t complete the main project I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. It was a roll of the dice, but I settled on Volume II because that’s when the obsession really started.

Anyway, I’m publishing this not on the weekend, so I can still call it a midweek post and keep my word to everyone, lol.]

[AUTHOR’S NOTE #2: [AUTHOR’S NOTE: The pic I used for today’s post comes from a photographer I found out about from the blog In Bed With Maradona. If you are massively into football ⚽️ culture, you need to check it out. The photographer’s name’s Jurgen Vantomme and he does some great stuff. This comes courtesy of this collection, and you can check his web site out here.]

 

A Writer’s Biography, Volume III, Part 4: On Leaving an Author Behind

There’s always been discussion about whether to separate artists and their behavior in real life from their art. This debate has grown exponentially given the political climate over the past two years, but that is just a reflection of the conflict that has gone on for many years before.

It may be strange that I’m posting this as a Writer’s Biography blog, but I’ve long held to the belief of Stephen King and others that reading other people’s work is nearly as much a part of building a writer as the actual writing process itself. So, something having to do with what I chose to read in the past, present, and future is part of building me as a writer moving forward.

I’ve written before about authors I’ve admired in this series, as well as authors that I’ve fallen out of love with for various reasons. However, I’m finding myself making more decisions regarding what authors I choose to read and what authors I choose not to read.

Basically, more and more new authors are coming out with more and more new stuff. Since I happen to be a newly published author myself, I have made the decision that I want to do what I can with the financial resources that I have to support these types of authors, especially those whose work I admire and/or those who have been a support to me now and in the past.

There are a lot of authors out there to choose from. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to devote my time to any authors that I think are problematic for whatever real life reason. Some that argue the opposite way would say that to do that would ignore many great works of writing. My counterargument to that is, there are plenty of authors out there who are good people. Why force yourself to make moral judgements when there are plenty of great alternative authors and writing out there? It’s too much work and I don’t want to support people like that financially or with attention if I can help it.

One example of this cropped up with me last week, and one particular author. I’m not going to name the author here, but he’s active in the entertainment industry as well as being an author. I had the chance to read a memoir of his, and I thought it was some great writing about his experiences in the industry. It was definitely one of the better books I read during the past couple of years.

However, I was on social media and I found him making some profoundly unfunny jokes about people, and it was apparent from other posts and information that he’d turned into some sort of right-wing crank. Within a half-hour, that book was no longer in my personal library and I put him out of my head. It was that quick.

I regret that the guy turned out to be someone I couldn’t approve of, but I don’t regret my decision. You may have to work with and live near people whose personal philosophies you disagree with, but there’s no requirement to have to rely on them for entertainment and reading joy. Both reading and writing are my passion, my escape, and my art. I have no problem having what I read reflect my passions and views just the same as my writing does.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: For a while on my blog, I’ve been posting stories about my past that helped build and mold me into the writer and person I am today. You’ll be able to find these (and a couple of other stories) in the Biographies category section of my blog. Here’s a direct link, too.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 3: Procrastination

There could be epic poems written about the concept of procrastination. Despite my best efforts, I would not classify myself as a poet. So, this will be about the best effort to do this that I can muster.

I have been an expert at wasting time for as long as I can remember. My natural state is to be at rest, and now in my 40’s, I have the physique that indicates that. But exactly what distracts me is a little harder to place.

What I have found is that I don’t believe that there has been any one distraction that has kept me away from writing. Anything that has distracted me from writing, has also distracted me from other opportunities as well.

Those distractions, as I’ve said, have been varied and changed over time. Reading and movies have been big time sinks over time, but I also sincerely believe that reading is necessary for a writer to help develop their vocabulary and tools. Video games used to be a big time sink, but has faded over time. Right now the biggest game I wind up playing is Football Manager on my mobile phone.

Here’s the question that’s been lingering around my head for, what, 10 years or so?

Am I an inherently lazy person?

Whenever I think about that, it reminds me of job interviews where they ask you to mention what you consider to be your weaknesses. Who ever wants to be considered lazy? Isn’t that supposed to be a sin, Christian or secular, in this world?

Not to stray too far away from writing here, but I think this fear about being called lazy fits into the American dogma of how individuals can always improve and better themselves through hard work alone, no matter what the circumstances. As for me, I have seen enough science fiction and current events to ponder what the advent of artificial intelligence and the Singularity will do to this culture. I believe that it will leave a lot of people in the world, much less America, out of sorts.

How do you change procrastination (or being lazy, if you’d prefer that term)? For most people who can’t afford extensive counseling or life coaches like a Tony Robbins, I think the only answer to that is very slowly. Sometimes you just grow out of certain behaviors, like what has happened in recent years with the author Tucker Max.

For me, the situation has become more that I’ve gotten tired of not accomplishing anything. I’ve gotten tired of talking about being a writer and not actually writing. The whole point of this blog has been not to showcase the brilliance of my writing (it might do that someday), but to get me into the daily mode of being a writer. Have I fully accomplished this? Not at all. Maybe I’ll never fully accomplish it, whatever that means. But I am getting better.

[NOTE: Doing this forced me to pull out some of my old journals, etc. I may have to do a few posts regarding what I wrote in recent years.]

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 2: The NaNoWriMo Experience

It’s starting up again as November 1 draws nearer. Nobody seems to talk about All Saints’ Day anymore (at least that’s what it seems on my social media feeds, but it’s not like that covers a true cross-section of America or the world or anything like that).

Yes, the new secular writing holiday, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is upon us. For those not familiar with the event, it began last Thursday 1999 in the San Francisco Bay area. The goal is for participants to write a full 50,000 word novel in the 30 days November provides. It’s the idea that you can finally get that novel out of your system.

If you do not know already, word count and writing production is something that I’ve become a bit obsessed with. To make it to 50,000 words in 30 days, you have to write around 1,667 words per day. That’s a pretty fast clip. 50,000 words is not a massive novel, by the way – it’s pretty short by today’s standards. It’s not quite novella length, but it’s a short read. The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer all clock in around that length.

I think that it’s a great idea. NaNoWriMo is the perfect argument against “Well, there’s no way I could ever finish a book.” Right now, people around the world are gearing up for the fastest writing sprint there is.
As the image with this post indicated, I used to be one of those participants, and a successful one at that. And it resulted in the second completed book I ever wrote.

2005 was a lot different for me, other than the fact that I was 12 years younger. At the time, I hadn’t worked full-time for three years. I had been a freelance journalist during that time, doing some odd jobs, and looking after my two kids, who were preschool-aged then. Halfway through that year, I returned to school, the beginning of a nearly two-year-long process that resulted in the beginning of my teaching career.

The point being, I had a far more flexible schedule than I do now. And so I took one look at NaNoWriMo and said, I can get it done.

The story I had in mind was inspired by the rush of school shootings that had occurred both before and in the wake of Columbine. One question had come to my mind: If some of these kids survive and do their time in prison, what happens to them next? That got me thinking.

What I came up with was pretty good, but I think the original title I used (which I won’t say here) ended up being too gauche, to be honest. If I was going to re-title it, Excitable Boy sounds like a good one.

My Main Character (MC) was a 16-year-old boy with an undiagnosed psychotic disorder. Bullied at school by kids put off by his odd, secretive nature, he snaps one day in the middle of a delusional episode and kills two of his tormentors.

It was a tragedy all around. The MC’s father (his mother died of cancer a year previously) commits suicide when he learns of the incident; he has been in denial of both his and his son’s mental issues. The MC was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental health care facility.

The MC is released after five years at the center. He is reunited with his only remaining family member, his older brother, a law student at the state university. He goes to live with his brother and his brother’s longtime girlfriend, while he tries to figure out what he is going to do with the remainder of his life. But, there are a rash of murders around campus, and people are starting to look at him as a possible suspect. In time, it’s up to him and his brother to find the real killer and find out why somebody might be setting him up…

Looking back on it, the NaNoWriMo experience for me was two steps forward and maybe a step and a half back. I always felt that if I wasn’t producing that amount of writing, I wasn’t going to be a success. That bogged me down a lot when I started teaching and didn’t find (or couldn’t make) time for writing. Also, I think I wound up using too many characters, including a supporting character that wound up being too much of a Mary Sue for my taste. I think I tried to sell it at one point, but that never went anywhere.

I’ve just looked at the book again, maybe for the first time in… eight years, maybe? Unlike my first adult attempt at a book, there just might be a decent story in here. If I get motivated, I might want to take another look at it, trim down some characters, make the story simpler, and see what comes out of it.

But for now, I’ve got the new project to work on. Another time, maybe. It might have potential.

 

Writing Journal, 10.29.2017: Steady success and some math

OK, if I keep having writing weeks like this, I will be cruising to the end of the book soon if my math is correct. First, here’s this week’s math:

4,213 words written.

Days writing:  7 out of 7.

Daily writing goals met (500+ words): 4 out of 7 days. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Two of those missed days were off of my goal by only a couple dozen words.]

My current word count on my new project is 56,796. As I mentioned before, I am shooting for a maximum word count of 100,000 or somewhat shorter. If I meet my minimum daily quota of 500 words for all of those remaining days (3,500 words per week, to put it another way), I will have an additional 31,500 words, putting me somewhere just under 90,000 words.

 

Right now, if I continue on this pace, there is a slight chance I will finish a rough draft of this project by the end of the year.

This is unfamiliar ground to me as a writer. I’m beginning to like it.

[YET ANOTHER EDITOR’S NOTE: Come back to this space soon; I’m going to have a story from my Writing Biography series that has a NaNoWriMo theme to it in honor of this year’s upcoming event.]

A Writer’s Biography, Volume II, Part 1: First Attempt at a Novel

For years, I thought about writing a NOVEL, a big old pile of words that would amaze everyone who read it and announce that a new talent had arrived.

You were that deluded when you were younger too, right?

After fits and starts and humbling hits of procrastination (I also breezed through my college years in the process), I finally decided on a tale. The book was entitled Buried Secrets and it was somehow generic and convoluted all at the same time.

TL;DR version: A high school senior with interests in journalism and/or law enforcement learns that a mysterious girl his age is living alone in a house that seems to be abandoned. He gets to know her and learns that she is trying to find out the identity of her biological mother and father after her adoptive parents died (car accident? I’m too over it to actually go into the document and look). She came to find out that they were both residents of his hometown (a small eastern Iowa town, hint hint). He agrees to help her out with his knowledge of the town, and they begin to have a romance.

At the same time, he learns that some members of his school’s football team committed a sex crime against one of their classmates. (Taking a cue from a real-life incident in the national media, the first drafts had this person be a girl, but I eventually changed it to a guy and the secret boyfriend of my main character’s best male friend). As he’s trying to help out this girl, he’s also trying to solve a case that will eventually involve his two closest friends.

All of the possible first-time mistakes writers made with their books, readers, I wound up making. It was too autobiographical, even though none of the supporting characters were based on people I’d known in high school. It was too convoluted, with two main plots and me trying to interweave them and make sense to each other. I got too caught up in the love story, I think, to make the female love interest relevant, even though I tried to do that. And, there was too much talking and debate and not enough action.

I wound up taking the book to an agent who wound up charging me $120 to take it around and sell it to some publishers. After a year and no sniffs at it, my agent said to give her another year. I decided to save my cash instead. There were no other takers among publishers or agents.

About four years ago or so, as I began the slow process of beginning to restart my writing life. I decided to take one more look at Buried Secrets and see if there wasn’t a viable story in there. I spent about a month attempting to see if I could carve it down, convert it into something that could be a good story. I couldn’t relate to the story anymore; more importantly, I couldn’t relate to the main character who I’d all but intended to be my surrogate but was now simply a ghost self of someone I no longer recognized.

By the end of it, I left it on my external hard drive, sitting there like a patient I’d had to cut open and save but who ended up dying in the attempt. By then, it was just lying there with its insides out, and I couldn’t make it into something good. The only good thing about it being a book rather than an actual patient was that I didn’t have to go through the motions of sewing the long-dead person up again just so the sight of it didn’t freak everyone out. It was Buried Secrets, and now it is properly buried, now simply something to learn from rather than a symbol of what could have been.

I wasn’t ready to be a writer then. That came later.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 6: Stephen is Still The King

Last weekend, I happened to catch the new film version of IT at my local theater, at the suggestion of my daughter, who happens to be into horror more than a little bit. I have to say it was of a higher quality than the 1990 miniseries. After the movie, over dinner, we wound up having a lively discussion regarding why they moved the plot setting 30 years ahead of the original book (cheaper and more readily available 1980’s items than 1950’s items nowadays) and how the plot progressed fairly closely to the original text. I was surprised…

 

[SPOILER]

 

… that the filmmakers decided to split the story into two. But with that decision made, it made far more sense to me that they decided to focus on the Losers’ adventures as kids rather than going back and forth between teen and adult adventures. It made for a far more coherent plot line, all things considered.

 

[END SPOILERS]

 

As we watched the film, I kept thinking back to the prominence that King has had in my writing life. It is a place that has hardly diminished from my teen years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to come to terms with what it has meant to me.

My mother was – still is – never a horror fan. I was not going to be able to buy any of King’s books or watch his films in my parents’ house. I still had to respect that. But there were libraries, other opportunities to get involved with his work. And I did.

If there has ever been someone that I would count as a literary idol in my life, it would be Stephen King. I can’t remember the first King book I read, but I know that I read the vast majority of them from when I was a kid to now. I don’t think everything he wrote was great – not even he thinks that everything he wrote was great – but he has had way more hits than misses, and I firmly believe that the hits are keeping on coming even though he’s now in his seventh decade.

There were so many things about King that I dug so much. His plots… well, plot was never something that he was into, more interesting situations with interesting people. An outcast girl who has the telepathic powers of a demigod? Sign me up. Recasting the Dracula myth into an American ethos 20 years before Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I’m down. Writing two insanely long books that, in turn, aim to be the definitive apocalyptic thriller and the Great American Novel of childhood and growing up? Sign me up, brother.

As a kid, I was interested in the graphic nature of the material, but it was the psychological horror that really got me. There was plenty of guts in some of the books, but one scene that has stuck with me more than any of those was the one in Salem’s Lot where the father was so distraught at his son’s funeral that he jumped onto the coffin. (On a related note, Salem’s Lot probably had one of the most devastating endings I’ve ever read.)

Whenever I read King, I read someone who was in love with the art of storytelling. With King, I gained more insight into the people and country I lived in. I also managed to get a lot more insight than I ever anticipated about the culture of New England. (I still will argue that King should be classified just as much as a regional writer as he is a horror/scifi/fantasy author.)

Then I read his book On Writing when it came out. I still rank it as one of the best books on writing that I have ever read – so simple, such an easy read, a mix of his writer’s biography and whatever advice he gave to be a writer. I’ve used adverbs sparingly and watched out for the passive voice ever since – a lot of my students got the active verb/passive verb lesson from me at one point or the other.

More than the individual pieces of advice, it was a literal dare to me. As I read it, I realized, this was what it meant to be a writer. This is what it takes to really dedicate yourself to being a writer, never mind a successful writer, however that’s defined. Are you ready to take him up on the challenge?

Reader, for many years, I was not.

Why I was not ready to meet that challenge, after years of saying I wanted to be a fiction author, writing tons of journalism that some people read and others disregarded in places that were never hotbeds of news, and teaching more than a few people how to write better themselves?

Man, that is a massive question. In fact, it’s probably such a massive question that it will likely dominate Volume II of my writer’s biography, which I think will soon start. (Don’t worry, I’ll likely put out some more stuff about reading as a kid, AKA Volume I stuff).

But to start answering it, I have to mention about how I always compared myself to King. I saw in him someone who was inherently a writer, and I always pictured myself as lesser than him. I didn’t get started writing serious fiction until I was much older than he was when he got his first book published. He’s put out more fiction than entire towns of authors. I’ve come to accept I’m not going to write as many books as he will, much less James Patterson. (Yes, I know Patterson has help.)

I’ve accepted that, though. I’ve accepted not being a literary superstar because that’s not really the reason I’m writing anymore, even though I’m really interested in finally getting my fiction published somewhere, in some capacity. But it’s OK to have something to shoot far, even if you miss the target. I get why Joe Hill hid his name for a while, took some time to become his own person before his name got out in the world. He’s a damn good writer, too.

Now I just want to be me as a writer. With my recent work, with this blog, I might start to finally get there.

A Writer’s Biography, Volume I, Part 5: Ambivalence Toward YA Fiction by a YA

I’m now a teacher of young adults. As part of being a teacher, I try to get kids active with reading. I’ve even taken it upon myself to collect some books in my own room for their reading interest. As part of this effort, I’ve acquired more than a few books with the “YA” (Young Adult) stickers on their spines, and they now are part of my improvised library.

If I were building a library from scratch, however, it probably wouldn’t include many YA books. This was the case even when I was a YA myself.

In my memory, which can probably tell tall tales as well as anything, the label of YA fiction started sometime in earnest around the late 1960’s and continued on since then. That always made sense to me, because the youth market was so big in those days due to the baby boom generation of my parents.

I missed out on the megahit YA genre series that have come to dominate the market in the 21st century, like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent, and The 5th Wave, among others. (Personally, I enjoyed Potter, was so-so on the Hunger Games, never thought Divergent made sense, and The 5th Wave was over the top, but had promise.)

Back during my childhood, there were a lot of kids that looked like me in towns that looked like mine dealing with teenage dramas that even then seemed irrelevant. I wanted to jump right into the big adult novels, like 1984 and Stephen King’s work. (It’s going to take another blog post to discuss my ongoing obsession for King’s work, and maybe more than one post.) I had made the amazing discovery that fiction that touched on the adult themes that kept kids of my time out of R-rated movies was far more accessible in book format than in theaters or television. That’s not the only reason I read those books, but it was admittedly one of them.

Despite my wariness about YA titles, I couldn’t help but pay attention to some authors that I couldn’t help admiring after I’d had the chance to read them. Paul Zindel and Chris Crutcher were two of them – I dug their offbeat young characters and attempts to find their own identities in hostile environments that I couldn’t imagine growing up in.

It was when I read The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian F. Thompson that a YA novel really caught my attention. Kids forced to immediately grow up – in this case, because your parents want you dead? Kids having to run into the forest to avoid sharpshooting teachers? Kids falling in love while on the run? What wouldn’t a 13-year-old me not like about it?

There were some flaws about it, however – some of the adults seemed to be too silly to believe and the kids seemed to have things too together at times. But 13-year-old me saw a great story about kids having to grow up unexpectedly. That’s the type of story that never grows old (pun somewhat intended).

In the end, I came to realize that it didn’t matter whether a book was classified as YA or not, just like it didn’t matter whether it was called sci-fi, horror, romance, literary, or unclassifiable. If a book had a story and characters I related to and fired my imagination, labels didn’t matter.

I didn’t usually read YA, and I still don’t. But sometimes one of them does spark the imagination.