When I was fairly young, second or third grade, I wrote my first short story (assuming you are willing to use a very broad definition of the term). Before that I was given to drawing big, sprawling, action-oriented pictures which had a certain inherent narrative, and from there I had progressed to making my own comic strips and illustrated Golden Book style tales, but I still remember that first foray into letting the words alone tell a story. I no longer have this particular scrap of my literary development, and I don’t even remember a lot about it (which may simply be because there’s not much to remember) but I do recall that it was a fantasy story about heroes killing a monster. It had to have pre-dated my first exposure to Dungeons & Dragons, but somehow I had absorbed the hack-and-slash tropes all the same by the age of eight or so. Actually considering that my dad liked to read sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks (which always had the best cover art) on his commute, and Clash of the Titans was on HBO fairly often, and various other things in the early 80’s zeitgeist, my choice of subject matter is pretty unsurprising.
More than the story itself, though, what I remember vividly is that once I had written out the entire thing I realized that whatever self-expression itch I had felt hadn’t yet been fully scratched. I needed an audience, wider than my parents, in fact as wide as possible, which at that age could mean only one thing: my class at school. So I also remember carrying the story to school one day and asking my teacher at some point in between lessons if it might be possible for me to read it in front of the class. I feel like I need to go back over that again to make sure my point is clear here. This was not a school assignment and I was not making a graded oral presentation. Nor did my teacher have any kind of pre-existing policy about earning extra credit by producing and performing original works. It wasn’t even Show and Tell day. I just had gotten the idea in my head at home to write a story for its own sake, and then also gotten the idea that rather than hand it to one of my friends to read I would render it dramatically to the entire class.
My teacher indulged me (I suspect this is because she must have gotten her teaching degree in the free-to-be 70’s) and I was excited for the premier of my epic. And I didn’t get stage fright or freeze up or get heckled or anything terribly traumatizing; I got through the whole story and it was politely received and the creative urge finally felt something like resolution and life went on. But one particular moment stands out in my mind almost thirty years later. The story involved swordplay and ogre-slaying and, because I was a typically bloodthirsty little boy, the descriptions were fairly graphic and gory. And as I was reading those words aloud towards the climax of the story, I suddenly felt acutely self-conscious about the content. I actually censored myself at one point with a last-minute word substitution: I had written something, at about the point where the main hero decapitates the evil monster, along the lines of “blood flew from the sword and guts spilled out the neck” but reading it in front of my class I said “blood flew from the sword and more spilled out the neck” because I was horrified at the thought of saying “guts”. Not at the thought of guts, themselves, because at that age I mentally pictured guts as looking vaguely like pink rice pudding. But I didn’t want to inflict the word guts and its icky connotations on my captive audience. So I edited it out on the fly. And I took away a strangely compelling personal lesson about the power of words.
I’m sure if anything approaching the above happened in a third-grade classroom today the parents would immediately be called by school officials to discuss whether or not there were any unlocked assault rifles in the child’s house, but I don’t have a single memory of any repercussions from my phantasmagoric ramblings. Not even so much as a funny look from a teacher who probably thought in ten years I would have long hair and a black van with a wizard’s tower airbrushed on the side. (She’d have been right about the hair but not the van.)
There’s a lot of reasons why this little childhood vignette is on my mind today. I’m reading a fantasy novel right now which just happens to have a running theme about performance and art and the power of names and stories and so on. I’m marveling at the way my little guy’s play is becoming more and more narrative-driven all the time and wondering when (not if) the making of stories will be secondary to sharing them for others’ entertainment. Every time I set myself to writing for the blog I know, consciously or unconsciously, I’m doing on-the-fly self-editing and clearly I can pinpoint exactly when I started honing that trait. But of course mostly it’s just one of the many little anecdotes that build the case that, yes, I really was always an attention-craving verbally-precocious little geek from basically as far back as I can remember.