First grade was a shocking year for me. I showed up ready to make submarines out of clay, eat jelly cookies, drink little milks, and build things out of blocks like we did in kindergarten. No one told me we were expected to read words on a big chart. When were we supposed to have been practicing that? I could recognize "Puff" and "Jane" and "Dick", but there were a lot of tough words thrown in there too, like "when" and "father" and "lost." It was a struggle.
Though first grade reading was tortuous, that summer before second grade my reading life was jumpstarted by my uncles giving me comic books. Green Lantern, Batman, Superman, that whole pantheon of superheroes led me to really wanting to read. It was fun and exciting to learn cool words like "Fortress of Solitude." And to make sense of the story you had to remember the other dull words like "when." So it all started to come together. I even began to try to draw and write my own comic books. It became my new hobby, second only to baseball.
By fourth grade I was loving reading and writing. I began writing my own novel-length stories (approximately 10 -12 pages), mostly about spies, the Civil War, and horror. Good fourth grade boy topics. I continued writing happily until sixth grade. Then I hit a wall. I was reading all these great books and stories and it seemed they all had some kind of incredible, twisty, unexpected ending. I remember in particular, The Monkey’s Paw. Wow. I couldn’t do that. My endings were not clever, twisty, and unexpected. They seemed dull and predictable. It made me feel depressed. I figured no way can I be a writer if I can't write stuff like The Monkey's Paw.
Then, somewhere in the middle of sixth grade good fortune put In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd in my hands. Most people know Shepherd as the creator and narrator of the cult movie classic, A Christmas Story. Shepherd’s collection of short stories was just great, funny stuff about a kid growing up in Indiana during the 1920’s and 30’s. It was timeless. And terrific. I read Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters next. So funny and so true to what it is to be a kid growing up. I could totally relate.
And then it hit me. I told stories like the ones in Shepherd's books to to my friends all the time. This kind of stuff happened to all of us. Goofy, funny, embarrassing life. I examined Shepherd’s work with a writer’s eye for the first time. There were no clever, twisty, shocking endings. It was normal stuff, but the secret was in the telling. I realized that when I was walking to school with my friends and was recounting some dumb, funny thing I heard about, I was laying it out like a story, with a beginning, a build-up, details, characterization, setting. I built an arc and delivered the punch line. It was writing, but it was oral. I could tell a story about regular stuff, I just had to tell it well and write it down.
Shepherd made it possible for me to look at myself as a writer again. He also provided me with a lot of laughs and great reading along the way.