Thursday, November 01, 2007

I am… a Writer!

I will never forget the day that it finally dawned on me that all the wonderful stories and poems I had been learning in school and filling myself with at home came from actual people -- not dead people, but people who actually made money with their writing! By this time, I was already industriously scribbling in any notepad or pile of paper I could get, doing double homework whenever we were assigned creative writing (in Catholic school, built on the Imitatio Christi, --imitation is the only form of learning -- that wasn’t often) and also, by 4th grade, amusing my friends with short limericks using their names. And many little stories written just for me. But it wasn’t until seventh grade, when I had come back from the blissful year away from the Westfield cliques, and had once again been relegated to underdog, that I by the purest accident, discovered mana from Heaven in the form of a magazine.

Ted’s Smoke Shop was one of those oversized closets that used to pass as stores in small towns -- it literally had one “aisle” that became seriously overcrowded with three customers. It had floor-to-ceiling shelves on three walls; I swear the fourth wall was only big enough for the door. So going in was not exactly an anonymous expedition, given that Ted - I suppose it was he; a shy 7th grader didn’t ask -- occupied the back third of the place himself. About three quarters of the shop held smoking items: cigars, cigarettes, lighters behind glass -- it was, as it claimed, a “smoke shop”. But it was also the only place to find magazines other than the three popular women’s pubs that Woolworth‘s had. It’s probably hard to believe a 12 year old could be so naïve, but I don’t think I ever noticed the “men’s” magazines on the lower shelves… I went in to find puzzle magazines, at least until I found it -- the Holy Grail -- a magazine with an inch-high banner that brazenly proclaimed, “The Writer”.

I was dumbstruck when I saw it; chills ran up my spine and made me dizzy. I recall glancing at Ted as if he might forbid me to pick it up, but he merely watched as I lifted it from the rack. It was, I believe, the June issue -- anyway, it was the one that always had the “Light Poetry Markets” (as I discovered, they covered markets in rotation) and it had a glossy solid spring green -- lurid, some might say -- cover that, sans images, listed in black and white the top articles, saving on color printing in a way no current magazine can. I flipped through the advice articles -- imagine, someone kind enough to tell me how to write! But it was the markets that floored me: page after page of “…poems on nature, children, family - 25 words or less, 2 cents per word” that literally opened a whole new world for me, in that moment. With shaking hands, I paid my dollar and quarter, money I had been saving -- yes, I was a very weird child -- for the pocket Shakespeare plays that Westfield Book Store sold. I have no idea what form of snobbery convinced the Bookstore that magazines were below them, but I never saw a Writer issue there… I had to run the gauntlet of Ted’s every time; ducking in like a… but I’m getting ahead.

Outside the shop - inside it was too crowded to do this - I tucked that magazine into whatever school bag I was carrying (they ranged from brown leather accordian-sided saddlebag with brass corners and a 2 inch wide belt closure to green oilcloth rectangles that tore after a month or so) and walked home in a frenzy of expectation. As fast as I could manage, I got through my recitation of the day at school and raced upstairs. I devoured that magazine, reading every word -- even the ads, even the masthead -- as I goggled at the idea that there were lots and lots of writers all over the country -- and that every month a new magazine of advice and paying markets was released to them… no, to us. For that day I joined, forever, the ranks of Writer. Maybe only in my dreams, but irrevocably. I am embarrassed now to think of the ardor that possessed me in those first delicious months.

Embarrassed, but also a little proud. Who else but a dyed-in-the-wool writer would hide the magazine in the largest textbook I had, to read illicit bits of sage wisdom instead of geography during class? Who else would actually hide the magazine from everyone -- friends, family -- in terror that someone would point out all the reasons I couldn’t be a writer? Who else would lug the heavy family Smith-Corona to the attic bedroom and type three copies of my little doggerel poems onto onionskin (stolen from Mom’s desk) so that I could mail off my first -- it felt like a secret society -- submissions? Only an addle-pated, DNA-selected, born scribbler would have been so affected. The cover literally fell off that first issue, as I read, and re-read, and re-read (anything worth doing is worth overdoing -- has always been my motto)… and, like some obsessive perv, I lurked around Ted’s as the month drew to a close, looking to see if a new issue of the magazine had appeared. The magazines were in the back right corner, the better to shield the men’s glossies, I suppose. But I couldn’t just look through the window, or I would have. I remember the acute embarrassment, the inability to ask about the magazine (again, for fear of being told I had no right to it), and finally, after the third or fourth time, Ted finally understanding what I was looking for and telling me what date it usually showed up -- I snapped it up the day it arrived, and then the scene repeated each month, since I couldn’t bear to think of it sitting there for more than a day without me, and was often forced to return 2-3 days running. It think it amused Ted, I know my emotions were pretty obvious and perhaps touching… but I never did ask.

I can not imagine, even now, being confident enough to have asked for a subscription. I’ll bet there are families in which a 12 year old asking to subscribe to The Writer would have been cause for joy and pride -- but I knew instinctively mine was not one of them. There were no writers in my ancestry, and I had already been given pointed advice by many family members about my over-use of the library… so an easy access to writing life was out. And, oddly, the library didn’t carry that magazine until much later -- or, possibly it was in the adult section of the library, which was strictly off-limits for an child not accompanied by parent. I did get a waiver from the librarians (who I knew very well by then) when I was in either 7th or 8th grade, at least two years early… they knew I wasn’t going for D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller, though I did find a certain forbidden pleasure in Rabinadrath Tagore, who would have been objectionable to my family simply because he was a poet and foreign. But anyway, I considered it a top honor -- much more than a simple sale -- when I finally got an article published in The Writer twenty years later… we each have our secret Everests.

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