Rob Wilstein’s post The (Full) Writing Life got me thinking about how I started writing. There wasn’t a specific moment when I realized I wanted to be a poet, novelist, or whatever. I would spend years working out those details. But there was a moment when I fell in love with writing. I’ve fallen in love with writing many times over since then, but that first time is something I’ll never forget.
It happened in third grade. My teacher was named Miss Gamrad. Behind her back everyone called her Miss Ramrod, because she was tall and thin, straight up and down. She had a triangular face, a wide unsmiling mouth, bulging eyes, and dark curls that stuck to the sides of her head. Except for the curls, she resembled a praying mantis, or rather a ‘preying’ mantis, more than a ramrod, and she was mean. She was never mean to me, of course, because I was perfect, but other kids in the class weren’t so lucky. She especially liked to yell at Russell M, a boy who I happened to be in love with. Russell had an edge, a wise mouth, and a problem with subtraction. She would frequently subtract him from the room. He spent a lot of time standing in the hall.
Outside of Russell the other thing that made her yell was lunch. Our six-room schoolhouse didn’t have a cafeteria. Lunch was brought in from another school miles away. The food arrived cold, and included such appealing entrees as salmon wiggle with peas on saltines. Miss Gamrad made sure that we finished every last bite. Fortunately my parents wrote me a note saying that I didn’t have to eat anything I didn’t like (yes, they were probably the world’s first helicopter parents). Russell wasn’t so lucky. His shirt cuffs were frayed and he wore shoes without socks. Everyone knew he was poor. On the rare occasions when he brought lunch, it was something weird like a cold fried-egg sandwich — with mustard! Miss Gamrad made it her personal mission to see to it that Russell got enough to eat.
On this particular day, she said that none of us would be able to go out for recess until Russell finished his spinach. We watched as he forced small bite after bite through his thin defiant lips. It took a while, but when the plastic tray was empty except for a pool of greenish water, Miss Gamrad smiled in triumph. And then Russell put his hand over his mouth, rushed past her, and vomited the spinach into a sink at the back of the room. As we crowded round and watched the food-flecked stream go down the drain, I’m surprised we didn’t all vomit. When Miss Gamrad was through cleaning it up, she announced that because of Russell we would miss recess. Instead we would have to write. There were groans. Not writing! Anything but that.
By now you’re probably thinking that on that afternoon I wrote my first story about Russell. I should have. I had a crush on him. I hoped he had a crush on me. He was a hard scrabble, vomiting James Dean, in a tiny classroom in the middle of nowhere, perfect fodder for a budding young writer. But I didn’t write about him.
I hadn’t yet figured out that I could write about the world around me. Instead as I sat in a room that smelled of Lysol and vomit, I wrote something called, What the Waves Tell Me. It wasn’t a poem, but it wasn’t really a story either. It was just something that I wrote on yellow blue-lined paper, and I couldn’t stop writing it. I wrote about sitting on a beach and how the waves told me a story. I moved to another beach and they told me another story. Then I moved to yet another beach, and they told me a different story. The words just kept just coming and there was no way I was going to stop them, because nothing had ever felt so right. When Miss Gamrad said to put our pencils down, I didn’t.
I would like to say that she had to tear the paper from my feverish hands, that I refused to give it to her and was defiant for the first time in my life, that Russell came to my rescue, read it, and fell instantly in love with me, but that would be the made-for-TV version of this. I ended things by simply making the tide go out. Today I can’t remember much of What the Waves Tell Me but I suspect there was a certain lack of plot, an absence of dramatic tension, too many multiplying existential beaches, but that doesn’t matter, because the feeling I got from writing it is still with me. It was as if a door had opened to a place I’d never dreamed was there. But it was there. It still is. And I keep coming back for more.
What was the moment that got you hooked on writing? Tell us on our Contact Dead Darlings page and we’ll share some of them on this site.