In order for anyone to discover a writer, a writer must first discover himself. So for my first blog post, the story of when I realized I’m a writer seems the best way to introduce myself to any poor, unfortunate soul that stumbles upon this site. Plus, it’s just a nice story.
This story of self-discovery begins where all stories of self-discovery begin — in my teenage years. It’s a time of seeing the world in broad and sweeping generalizations, which naturally leads to high amounts of idealism. Such an outlook fills one with hopes that extend beyond horizons and despairs lower than discarded chewing gum on the sidewalks of hell. It wasn’t uncommon to travel through this spectrum of emotions within the seven minutes we had to make it from D-wing to A-wing at a high school called Chatfield. And it was after just such a trip to A-wing that our story takes place as I settled into Mrs. Johnson’s eleventh grade English class.
This class was pretty much what you could expect in your average suburban American public high school. It was designed to impart an average knowledge of material the average student should know based on statistical averages. And as average teenagers with dreams of being so much more than average, most of us would have preferred to be somewhere else. Consequently, a high school day was a long, arduous process of getting from one bell to the next until we could finally drive off to that somewhere else and enjoy a few hours of freedom before our parents came home from work.
These bells grew to become the most significant events in the typical school day. Firstly, they signaled a brief respite from our humdrum classes. When the bell rang, the whole herd of Pavlov’s dogs would jump from their seats and spill into the hallways for seven minutes of chatting with friends or, if you were lucky, a quick make-out session in a secluded corner (secluded corners not necessary).
The bells also served as a countdown informing us we were one period closer to freedom — similar to the way a prisoner marks down the days on his cell wall. And just like any anxiously anticipated event, a restlessness took hold of us before the end of every class taking the shape of a pre-bell symphony. Pens clicked closed. Books slapped shut. Everything was scraped off the desktops and rustled into backpacks, which thudded on the floor followed by their closing zippers screeching across the room. This was also when the whispers started. “Where are you going for lunch today?” “Did you see what she was wearing?” “Is that test today? I didn’t study at all.” Over the rustling, the scraping, the hissing, teachers would raise their voices in vain to overcome the cacophonous symphony of anticipated freedom.
On this particular day in Mrs. Johnson’s eleventh-grade English class, we were finishing a unit on utopian literature. As we had exhausted what Mrs. Johnson could or would tell us about the subject and the test wasn’t until tomorrow, she decided to give us an ungraded, in-class writing assignment. We were to write a short piece illustrating our own personal utopia. When finished, we would share with the others in our row. Each row would then choose their favorite to be read aloud in front of the class.
Now there’s something you should know about me. I have been writing since I was about seven years old. However it was something I just did. I didn’t think of it as practice toward mastering a skill. And while I would let people read anything I wrote, if they asked, it wasn’t my intention. The thought of actually having a reader never crossed my mind. I just wrote as a way to help myself understand the world. It was easier for me to think with a pen. So when I was asked to write about my utopia, I thought about it for a minute, an idea popped into my head, and I started scribbling as I normally would.
Then the scribbling came faster. As the idea started, more ideas came. They spread and headed in strange new directions the way a single rain drop will track up a windshield and split apart in the wind if you drive fast enough. I was writing as fast as I could trying to keep up with my idea. The next thing I knew, I was starting another page in my notebook. Then another. The idea continued to take shape — I would need four sections, no five. Maybe six. I moved onto the second section. I could barely recognize my handwriting. I was writing in tongues, possessed by an idea. Scribbling, scratching, faster, faster, skipping mistakes and moving on. Almost done with section two. Only three left. No, four.
I looked up wondering what day it was.
It was time to pass our papers down the row. I handed mine unfinished to the guy behind me and started to look at the girl’s in front of me. I instantly felt a wave of embarrassment and horror as I looked at the girl’s paper. It was completely different from mine. I must have misunderstood the assignment. I did it wrong! Her paper read like, well, a paper — an essay fit for your standard eleventh grade English class. “In my utopia, there would be no…” followed by an explanation. The next paragraph began “Also in my utopia, there would be…” followed by an explanation. My thought of messing up the assignment was confirmed when the guy behind me commented about my first line. “Wow, Mark. Golden gates slowly swung open between ivory pillars.” To this day I have no idea if he was being sarcastic or appreciative of that first line. All I knew was that I did something different. This was high school. Different was bad. We continued to share our papers down the row. All of them started with some variation of “In my utopia…” Boy had I messed up.
After we cycled through the entire row’s papers, it was time to decide which one to read in front of the class. We huddled around the last desk in the row, which belonged to Ashley. Now, I still couldn’t get over the thought that I had done the assignment completely wrong. When you do something so different from everyone else, it’s hard not to think such a thought. So I was a little surprised when my story was chosen to be read. I was more surprised that the vote was unanimous. I was completely floored that it only took approximately ten seconds to make the decision.
However, there was now a bigger dilemma to solve. See, I didn’t want to read my story in front of the class and refused to do so. Lead by Ashley, my row members tried to convince me that my story needed to be shared. As I said earlier, I’ve never had a problem sharing my writing with anyone, but I’ve always had a problem speaking in front of groups of people. I explained the true nature of my refusal. Ashley was insistent and proposed a solution. She would read it for me. We were all fine with that. I left the unfinished story on her desk and we all sat down.
There were roughly twenty minutes left in class when the first paper was read. Again, we were treated with “In my utopia…” A few minutes later and we were on to the next one. The pre-bell symphony began warming up. “In my utopia, there is no war.” Another few minutes. The whispers started. “Did you hear who Alex is going out with?” “In my utopia, everyone always has enough food.” Pens began to clack. “Hear of any good parties this weekend?” Papers crackled and were shoved into notebooks. “In my utopia, nobody ever dies.” Another few minutes. Backpacks rustled as they were drawn close. “In my utopia…” “What did you get for problem 13?” Five minutes left. Almost free.
Ashley walked to the front of the class. She announced that what she was about to read was not hers but was written by one Mark Stabler. Zippers began to buzz as people opened their bags to receive their books. Ashley began. “Golden gates slowly swung open between ivory pillars…” She continued reading my story about a guy that washes up on a beach without knowing how he got there. He walks through the gates on the beach and enters a forest with a single path. After walking down the path a little way, he spies a fork in the road with a single sign saying “Spring.” He takes the fork and comes upon a clearing containing all the wonderful things about Spring — puddles and rainbows and flowers and the silkiest mud squished between bare toes.
About the time he reached the clearing I was suddenly startled. I raised my head off my desk and looked around. The class was dead silent. All the rustling had stopped. Pens, books, papers, notebooks remained on the desks. Backpacks were unzipped, ready for their contents. The class hadn’t finished packing up to go. They had stopped. Mid-pack. The whispers were silenced. There was only Ashley’s voice dancing across the room reading my words about the wonderfuls in Spring.
Then the unbelievable happened. The bell rang in the middle of Ashley reading one of my sentences. Then these kids who didn’t care about this class, cared even less about an assignment that was ungraded, these kids who didn’t want to be where they were and looked forward with excited anticipation to nothing more than getting out of there — didn’t move a muscle. Ashley began to read faster, trying to finish. Another minute. The class fought between the conditioned instinct to move and the desire to stay. They began to stir in their seats, but still no one would say a word. No one would get up. Ashley kept going. She reached my unfinished end. She announced that I didn’t have time to complete the story. A strange silence fell upon the room. For a moment no one knew what to do. Finally we remembered where we were, and everyone got up and went on to their seven minutes (now five) of pseudo-freedom. Ashley returned my story. I took it from her and stared at it. As the next class began to wander in, I finally packed up my stuff and headed to my next class.
Ashley addressed me as “The Writer” for the rest of the school year. To this day, it is still a title I don’t completely accept. But this is one of the reasons I’m starting this blog. To accept that title. To accept what I suppose I’ve always been. As I look back, I still don’t understand why I was able to make thirty people care about something even if only for a few minutes. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it again. However, if you come back here every once in a while, maybe, just maybe, I can. Maybe I can produce some words that will freeze time for you, and for just a moment, help you gaze at the world in wonder. Maybe not. Either way, it’ll be interesting to find out.
Launch your own filament in the comments below.