Mrs. Gilbert made me want to be a writer. It was the second grade and I don’t remember what kind of literature we were reading. Only two things mattered to me at the time. (1) I wanted to impress Mrs. Gilbert. She was by far the youngest teacher in the school, and despite a terrible complexion, the prettiest. (2) In trying to impress Mrs. Gilbert, I found my life’s calling. (3) Mrs. Gilbert created the first existential crisis of my life.
I can remember so few of my teachers from high school and college. Alcohol and its effects, notably lethargy and jitteriness, probably blocked my memory. Or, maybe, there were only a few memorable teachers. But I can recall several grade school teachers, which indicates to me, anyway, that I spent a good deal of my child and pre-teen years sober, unlike high school and college.
While I remember several of my grade school teachers—supporting the fact that there was a time in my youth when I was sober—Mrs. Gilbert had the greatest influence on me until, maybe, the seventh grade when I fell headlong into a deep and abiding love for Miss Riggs. Even then, by that time, Mrs. Gilbert has solidified in my mind and body that I was going to be a writer.
What literature does a second grader read? I loved books and swallowed them whole. Second-grade reading material was pap, stuff that I ran through in minutes. One time, I sat down after school and read all the Little Golden Books we had in the house, which was quite a few. I finished my work just less than a week later and, bing, I ran through all the second-grade reading material in the school library by the end of two months.
I remember this so clearly because I wrote my first book when I was in Mrs. Gilbert’s class. I was set at the back of the room with the remedial readers. I could never read what the teacher wrote on the board. One day, Mrs. Gilbert wrote and wrote on the chalkboard. The chalk clicked and scratched. Turning around, she asked me to read what she wrote. She wanted just one good sentence out of me. I told her that there was nothing on the board to read. It was then that we all found out that I needed glasses.
I graduated from the remedials to the “good students” in little less than a week. Mrs. Gilbert took interest in her budding charge. I was swooning. To impress her, possibly, or because I meant it, I told her that I wanted to be a writer. She laughed, as did just about anyone I revealed my ambition to until I actually published my first stories in a local newspaper at the age of 34.
I told her that I was going to write a book. She said, “Well, all right, let’s see what you can do.” I went home that night and sat down with a Big Chief tablet and started my master work. It took me three weeks or so to fill that tablet with a story of Secret Service agents on the trail of a would-be presidential assassin. To be honest, I took my cues from a television program my parents watched religiously. I don’t recall whether the series was about the Secret Service or there was an episode of a spy series that intrigued me. In either case, I filled the tablet with text and illustrations.
I surprised Mrs. Gilbert one day after class. She hadn’t thought that her admonition about seeing what I could do would produce anything. I proudly showed Mrs. Gilbert my first work of fiction. She stopped cold. Her reaction to the guns and shooting and death in my story disturbed me. I thought she’d be proud. Instead, she took the book and put it in her drawer and told me to sit down. She called my parents in for a conference with her and the monsignor.
Two afternoons later, we sat at Mrs. Gilbert’s desk. My dad was at work, so it was just my mom, Mrs. Gilbert, the monsignor, and me. The monsignor said with some solemnity that guns and shooting and death were not something a second grader should have anything to do with. My mom looked worried, as the monsignor told her that she needed to control my television watching. Mrs. Gilbert sat silent and resembled Judge Voltaire Perkins in the television drama Divorce Court, which my mom watched during the day and which I saw when I was home sick.
Sufficiently chided, I gave up trying to show anyone my work. I continued to read. I encountered The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in the third grade. I read the 300-page book in just three days. I was so proud of myself that when I bragged to my parents, they actually took note. My father turned down his newspaper page, looked over it, and said something like, “Well, that’s great.”
I would continue to write stories and illustrate them for several years after. When we began writing stories for English classes in the fifth grade, I found my calling. As long as the characters acted like good Catholics should, I never ran any resistance to my work, and often gleaned accolades from teachers.
By then, I had a compatriot who wanted to be a writer. Jeff had come from public school to join us at Christ the King in the fifth grade and brought his brother’s copy of Catcher in the Rye. The book was a revelation. By the end of the sixth grade, we were exchanging stories. My will to become a writer was set in stone. (By the way, Jeff’s writing was always better than mine. He would go on to become a professional writer. I would take a longer and rockier path to becoming an author.)
Years passed and the literature I read only convinced me further that I wanted to write. As a college teacher, I can tell you that students should read certain volumes by the time they are 21—Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Heller’s Catch-22, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. (From experience, I say that anyone who doesn’t read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye by the sixth grade is already literarily retarded and needs to get with the program.)
Regardless of what I think other should read, these volumes and many others only inspired me—Vidal, Cather, Zola, Hemingway, de Bouvier, Wolfe, Fitzgerald. But by the time I was in college, I was drunk for days and weeks on end. The efforts I put into my college writing and journalism classes was enough to earn me Bs and Cs, but nothing that ever moved a teacher to encourage me. in fact, one of the most influential teachers I ever had told me, flat out, that I would never be a writer.
I often tell people that I have no talents or skills to speak of. This is absolutely the case when it comes to manual or technical labor. I am good at heavy lifting, and even that’s escaping me as I get older. Anything I write that’s any good comes out of hard work, revision and rewriting, and endless drafts. Nothing written comes easily. I am a writer because I want to be, not because I was born with a gift. Even in my journalism career, I had more a knack of cutting through bullshit than I did writing what I found underneath it. But still, I worked and sweated, and this produced good stories.
I wonder what it would be like to have talent, to know what it was to have the words run right out of me, to know instinctively how to put a story together (hell, even to know what makes a good story). But I did become a writer. I still write every day, even when I don’t have a project in front of me. One might say that I am driven—not by talent but by an inner creative impulse that even I couldn’t drink out of me.