I have an unpaid debt. It is long overdue, and I am going to try and pay it now.
I started writing when I was a child. Mostly scraps of poetry. Truthfully, I was a little embarrassed by it. I spent most of my youth trying to prove I was a “tough guy.” Just hit home runs, strike batters out, and bust somebody’s head every now and then for good measure. Writing didn’t fit the persona I was trying so hard to create, so I kept it to myself. To paraphrase the late William Gay, “you don’t spend two hours at football practice trying to crack open someone’s skull, then come back into the locker room and say ‘Any of you guys want to hear the sonnet I wrote this weekend?’”
Being a writer wouldn’t put the fear in the boys and more importantly, it wouldn’t impress the girls.
Then one day I was exposed.
I was in a ninth grade English class when I first met a “real” writer. He was our “Poet in Residence” for a few months. I still don’t know how he got a gig like that. Probably some sort of Federal Endowment to Enlighten the poor art-deprived kids in a little central Alabama town.
Now he was the image I had of a writer. A kind of funny-looking little man dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, and one of those coats with the elbow patches. He didn’t look like he’d ever been in a fight, unless of course someone had beaten him up.
He talked to our class about poetry, then asked us to write one. In the next few minutes, I scratched one off. I looked around. Almost everyone else just sat staring at their blank piece of paper.
“Now who’s got something for me to read?”
One thing for certain, it wasn’t me. Not only due to my secret, but also because my first line was “A short, funny-looking man in a flannel shirt asked me to write a poem about writing a poem.”
What I didn’t know was that the girl sitting behind me had been peeking over my shoulder. She reached around me, snatched the paper off my desk and said ‘’Here’s one!”
I was mortified, but it was too late to stop it.
The poet came over. He took it from her, read it to himself, and smiled.
“Listen. This is just what I’ve been talking about.”
He read it. I looked around. The teacher was smiling. A few of my classmates were smiling. I think I might have even heard a “Hey, that’s pretty good.”
Now everybody knew my secret. I felt like a circus freak.
But the thing was, I kind of liked it. I had written something that somebody thought was pretty good. That made me feel good.
Now I won’t say that girl completely changed the entire course of my life. I didn’t go on to become the next Great American Writer. You won’t find me in the bookstore, unless I’m browsing. I wrote off and on over the years, but I still kept most of it to myself.
Then about ten years ago, I started writing this little blog. It isn’t easy, because I am my own harshest critic. I spend hours at it, but I am never completely satisfied with the result. It could always be better. It should be better. A word more here – a word less there. Why am I doing this?
But now and then I get a little note from that girl who sat behind me all those years ago. It’s always something like “Hey, that was good. I really enjoyed it. Keep it up.” Then that feeling I had in the ninth grade returns, and I sit down and try to do it again. To do it better this time.
I’ve never repaid that debt to her, but I am now.
Thank you, Leslie. You are the one who gave me the courage to be a writer. If it wasn’t for you way back then, no one would be reading this now.
You didn’t know? Well now you do, and so does everyone else.