“From far, from eve and morning
and twelve-winded sky,
the stuff of life to knit me blew hither:
here am I.”
I never thought I would ever be sitting here at my computer writing something like this. The story I would like to tell is far too complicated. So I shall tell another story, and shall attempt to be brief.
Most children, at an early age, look up to their mother or father, see them as heroes, as mythical demigods, invincible beings, what have you. They are our providers; they take care of us. In a sense, they are gods. I was not an especially weird child for seeing my father in this light. When I was a little boy, Dad was the greatest man in the world. He was my hero. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up (more on that in a minute). Unfortunately, when young innocent children reach those dreadful teenage years, for whatever nebulous reason, these same all-powerful adult figures are suddenly, in the eyes of adolescence, regarded as uncool. They become the last people in the world some teenage jizz-fitter wants to be seen with. I don’t know why this is, but most of us know that it is.
I would be lying if I said I was not guilty of this same outlook. I was nothing special, just another naïve kid who foolishly thought I could rule the world (with what, I don’t know). Sometimes, though, I’ve wondered if there was more to it than that.
My older brother Devin and I were both very much into horror films and comic books when we were kids. I still love horror now. My father noticed this interest we had and encouraged it in both of us. He rented us scary movies any sane parent wouldn’t let their kids watch even after they had kids of their own. He bought us comics, told us spooky stories. I can remember being so young that I was barely able to write and I wanted to write stories like Dad. But I wanted to write scary stories. I wanted to remake Friday the 13th Part 3 or something, only in words. Hell of a goal, huh? But hey, that’s how these things develop, right?
My father gave me this old clunker of a word processor typewriter, the kind with the little LED display about the length of a stingy stick of Juicy Fruit and the body shaped like a reject from George Lucas’ model spaceship department. Where he got this machine, I do not know. I do know that I typed on it a lot, never much of anything special (I was just learning to write, let alone type) until the day at my grandmother’s house when I completed my very first short story. It was called, I believe, “Ax Killer,” and it was a six-year-old’s conglomeration of bits from different horror films, sewn painfully together with no plot, no characterization, nor anything else of literary value. Basically lots of “AAAHHHH!” with misspellings and little to no grammatical usage. Still, I was proud of all two and half double-spaced pages I had cranked out.
I took it to my grandmother, who was in the kitchen with my brother, and handed the masterpiece over with full confidence.
What happened next? What was my first experience in submitting a piece of fiction? My six-year-old self was brought to tears as my grandmother dissected the piece, ripped it to shreds, laughed at me, told me I didn’t put a period here, I had too many Os in “bloody,” it was nothing but “AAAHHHH!” and “Let’s get out of here!” It was terrible, it was foolish, and, basically, I was stupid.
I can’t understand why my grandmother would do such a thing. To this day, I do not know. That’s a whole other story.
I snatched the pages away from my grandmother, ripped them up in front of her, threw the bits and pieces at her, and then ran back to the living room, where I curled up on the couch and cried.
I didn’t write again until I was almost in high school.
For me, other than being just another goofy teenage hoodlum, high school was rough. I wasn’t what you would call “stupid” but you might say that I was “unwilling to learn.” My grade point average was somewhere in the negative hundreds, I hated the school I went to, hated most of the other students, most of the teachers, and basically hated my life all around. I didn’t read the books assigned to me. I did not do my homework. I never wrote in Creative Writing class. I got to a point with my Algebra teacher where I could waltz in, make eye contact with her, shrug, and walk right out again, at which point I would go to the parking lot and smoke cigarettes. I did, however, read my comic books and other various things, and took up playing music, specifically the drums.
It wasn’t until close to the end of my eighth grade year that something changed, however small that change was. It was quite a while yet before it would have any true significance. My English teacher, Lynn Woodard, decided to take a break from the usual this and that, and told everybody to take out their notebooks. For the first half of class we were to write a short story about anything we wanted. For the second half we were going to read them.
I don’t know why it was that, for one of the only times in the past ten years, I decided to put pen to paper that day. Maybe I was just inspired. Maybe I’d filled my cigarette quota and my jack-off-and-think-about-girls quota and figured it might be a nice change. Whatever it was, I wrote a story, connecting a random string of events with random nonsensical dialogue. I understood stories. I didn’t understand writing them. I’d given up on that when I was six.
Like my father, I can be painfully shy. When it came my turn to read, I refused out of embarrassment. Miss Woodard did not relate to whatever my problems were, but she did understand that I had my problems. She told me my story had to be read, and if it made me feel better she would read it to the class for me.
I agreed, hiding my face in my hands.
I can’t remember what the story was called. What I do remember was everybody laughing—not because it was terrible, but because it was funny, because it was, as one classmate said, “entertaining as hell.” I think it was the first time I got an A.
My father picked up my little sister Shannon and me from school that day. The usual bullshit ensued on the drive home. “How was your day?” “Can I turn up the stereo?” Blah-blah-blah. “Oh, I got an A in English today.”
“A story I wrote.”
With an enthusiastic uptilt in his voice, Dad said, “No kidding?”
“No kidding,” I said.
My father drove along, smiling. He sought an alternate route home, through a residential neighborhood. After a moment he asked if I had the story with me. When I said yes he asked if he could read it. When I said yes he pulled over in front of some innocent, unknowing house.
“What’s going on?” Shannon asked.
My father looked at me with genuine excitement. I took this to mean we weren’t waiting until we got home. I withdrew the story from my bag and handed it over as he switched off the stereo. I remember being terrified. After all, my dad was a writer. A professional writer. A famous writer.
He read the story, laughed at what I believe were the appropriate moments. When finished he handed it back over to me. “I love it.”
Like I said, it was quite a while yet before it would have any true significance. But that moment, that one drive home, changed something in me. And though I still didn’t do well in school, I took a bit more to both educating myself and to writing. I began running short stories by my dad. He would always read them, no matter how busy he was. Thing was, he would not help me. Not in the literal sense. He would not tell me about my structure or about my characterization. He would tell me things that seemed obtuse. With that great warm smile he would ease back in his seat, place his hands behind his head and tell me things that, unbeknownst to me, I was supposed to think about. To meditate on.
I can remember, maybe two years before he was gone from my life, when he asked me to join him in his office. I sat down across from him, at first nervous that I had done something truly awful.
“I just wanted to talk with you a little about your writing,” he said, “or your music, or anything else you decide to pursue.” He eased back and brought his feet up onto his chair (he couldn’t rest them on the ottoman because his manual typewriter was sitting on it). “Keep at it,” he said. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong. If you know what you want to do and you keep at it, you’ll make it.” He gave me some additional writing advice, some of which I’ve taken, some not. One has to remember that even at this point I was still a stupid, self-centered teenager. But I never let those words evaporate. They’ve remained with me always. And as time has passed I’ve realized, just like when I was a little boy, Dad is the greatest man in the world I’ve ever known. He is still my hero.
I went into denial when my parents split up. I went into denial when I knew my father was dying. I immersed myself even more so into being a stupid goofball teenager. I wasn’t there nearly as much as I should have been.
There are certain regrets I have to live with. One I don’t have to live with, thank God, is allowing my dream to be taken away from me forever. I only lost it for about ten years. With my father’s help, I was able to reclaim it. And I’ll never let another tell me that I’m wrong. Life is too short, and this dream I nearly lost is the reason why I live.
“…Now—for a breath I tarry
nor yet disperse apart—
take my hand quick and tell me,
what have you in your heart.”
Also, be on the lookout for Shadows and Reflections, A Roger Zelazny Tribute Anthology, coming soon, edited by Trent Zelazny and Warren Lapine.
Featuring such masterful writers as Steven Brust, Kelly McCullough, Edward J. McFadden III, Lawrence Watt-Evans, S.D. Perry, with an introduction by George R.R. Martin, and an afterword by Neil Gaiman.