Back in high school I had some unique individuals as teachers. One, for instance, was Mr. Montz. I may be botching the spelling of his name, it doesn’t matter. Mr. Montz was famed throughout the school, both for being the best and the strangest history professor in the school’s own history. Mr. Montz began with each new class by listing Montz’s Laws on the blackboard. I don’t remember all of them, but there are a few that stuck with me. A Student is one who studies. An instructor presents information. A Teacher is one who teaches.
And Mr. Montz was a teacher. Some of his students were allowed not to attend class at all. He made the deal first day that if you came to class on the day of exams and maintained an “A” average you did not have to come to class. Everyone came anyway. He was also very adamant to suggest welding schools near you if you were not doing well. He did this in an non-insulting manner in which you knew your best interest was at heart. You never knew whether he would be talking about the American Revolution, or reading to the class from the Just-So stories by Rudyard Kipling. He had the perfect voice for it – and I’ll never forget hearing him read about the Great, gray, green, greasy Limpopo River. I’ll also never forget that I learned in his class – that it was what education should be about. Not a list of deadlines, some memorized facts that sift in and out of the brain and disappear. Lessons – some about history, others about life. He was a great teacher.
I was probably blessed when it came to teachers. My creative writing teacher, Nell Wiseman, still teaches (I think) and has won acclaim for her work in Illinois education. I wrote a great number of poems in her class – that is what I remember best. We had to complete a poetry notebook that was turned in to an Illinois women’s literary society (don’t recall which one). First prize was something like $10 – more money then than it is now. I wrote what I thought was a very creative poetry notebook, and one of my poems – the Ballad of Daniel Dunn (notice the alliteration?) won second prize. What I remember best is that my poem about a bear caught in a forest fire due to a careless smoker won first prize.
Except I never got that prize. I had sold the poem (and an entire second poetry notebook) to a friend. He won first prize, and he didn’t’ even share the money. That was the down side. The up side is that at that moment in time, I knew I could write. I was certain of it. I had competed against all of the kids in my school who thought they might be interested in creative writing, and I’d taken first and second place. Of course, I had a lot to learn about what it meant to be able to write…that knowledge came years later…but it was the start.
I also had a teacher named Mrs. Plath. She was a very strict disciplinarian, but she truly seemed to love books. In her class I discovered Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (I had to go to the desk and ask her after reading most of the book if she was aware of all that happened in that book because I was afraid I’d get in trouble for writing about it). I also wrote a long poem called The Torture Chamber (lost to history) as an extra credit assignment, and a short story titled “The Thing at the Top of the Stairs.” That story, years later, was rewritten and actually published in 365 Scary Stories. Even at that age I was writing the sort of thing that would draw my creative attention later in life – and fairly well, I think. Still…I didn’t take it as seriously as I needed to. Later in this book I’ll talk about turning points, and how I think my career would be different if I’d applied myself even a little bit sooner than I did, but that is digression.
My early life was filled with teachers. My grandfather, an absolutely amazing man, taught me a lot about life – about being honest – about working with my hands. He took me fishing and taught me to polish stones to make jewelry. He taught me to make a Vinegar Sling and the wonders of foods like “brains and eggs” and homemade yogurt by the mason jar. He escaped a nursing home once, stole his own car from his house (a bronze VW bug) and drove it eighty miles to my house for a visit. He was a great man, and he blessed me with a plethora of images, ideas, and stories that continue to color and populate the worlds and stories I create.
You never know when you will encounter a teacher. You never know what the lessons will be, or when you’ll put those lessons to use. I was fortunate enough to have a wide range of influences at a very early age, and to be gifted with the sort of memory that not only recorded them all in detail, but that can sift them and rearrange them and put them to good use. The best of your stories come from your life; the things that have mattered to you, brought you to tears, scared the crap out of you and brought you to your knees with pain. All the rest is trappings and fluff…the important words flow when you are writing with emotion.
Most of what I’ve written that I believe matters in more than a superficial way came to me when I was writing what hurts. That’s what this book is about, at its core. Writing what hurts, what blinds, what uplifts and what captivates. Writing in that zone where the world fades, and you disappear into the words. Writing things that, when others read them, make you hold your breath and cringe in the fear that they’ll hate them, or not understand them, or laugh…
I suppose a book about writing needs to be broken into sections of some sort. Characters. Plots. The tools of the trade. I’ll get to all of that. First I want to establish the ground floor of this house of cards. I call it that because, in the face of someone else’s methods, dreams, and career, all that I write might blow away like it was caught in a stiff wind. Writing is a solitary occupation, and no two writers occupy the same little world, in the end. You take what you can use, discard the rest, and focus on the work. Let’s get to it.