Tuesday, February 02, 2010

My Earliest Writing Memories

Reading and writing came to me later than most and with great difficulty. Unlike my classmates, I was neither a proficient, nor even a halting reader. In the third-grade, while everyone else was teasing out the pronunciation of words for our group reading assignments, I was illiterate. My inadequate abilities retarded the rest of the class. As I fell further behind the skill-set of my peers Mrs. Mathis, my teacher, made it clear I was not among her favorites.

Sent from a noisy classroom to the quiet, empty school library, realm of gray-haired, be-spectacled Mrs. Mueller, I sat at our librarian’s side hour after hour as she schooled me the ways of the alphabet and the manner in which words and incredible stories could be drawn from the pages of books. Books became my life, a safer place than the chaos and dysfunction of home. Asocial and awkward I retreated into those tales and read nearly every book in the school library Mrs. Mueller later told me.

Writing was different, for despite my love of words my penmanship was mostly illegible and my spelling atrocious. Faced with a writing assignment I would set at a table with a sheaf of clean, blue-lined paper and a stash of freshly sharpened yellow pencils and proceed to create a wastebasket full of crumpled papers. Some were marred by large, ugly smudges. Others had holes worn all the way through. Shredded into pieces or wadded up, none escaped to the classroom. After a while I simply gave up and ceased to turn in writing assignments. I wasn’t a writer.

While in high school I listened attentively, contributed to class, and did well enough to earn a passing grade or better. Dropping out of high school in the middle of my senior year, I coincidently avoided having to turn in the required senior thesis. Even in my first attempt at college 30 years ago I didn’t write. In a class on Shakespeare, like everyone else, I was assigned a written final of ten pages. Without discussing the matter with my professor, I turned in ten pages of hand-drawn illustrations of mythical microscopic agents responsible for Richard III’s divided motivations, Lady Macbeth’s ambition, King Lear’s madness, and Romeo and Juliet’s ill-fated love. I was given an A, and the professor used my work as an example of a worthy and innovative academic response to Shakespeare.

As things happen, many years later I ended up on the business side of publishing. As publisher of San Francisco magazine I promoted myself to editor in the early 1990s when my editorial staff walked out in a snit over an aesthetic decision I made. Similarly I became a writer when Dave Burgin, executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner attempted to force me out by relieving me of my position as features editor and assigning me a daily, front-page column in 2001. His plan failed wonderfully. It seems the combination of spite and cash money was more motivating than academic expectations or accolades.

Now at the ripe old age of 59, I've decided it's high time for me to get a college degree. As most folk think of retirement I have re-thunk* my academic career. This time I plan to do it write.

*Thunk (thngk) v. Nonstandard: A past tense and a past participle of think.

©February 2, 2010 Fred Dodsworth


Anonymous Avtar said...

It's funny, the things we didn't know about one another back then. God bless Mrs. Mueller!

While I learned to read before first grade (my older sister taught me with her own Dick & Jane books), I didn't actually read much early on. While some of our class mates would turn in dozens of book reports each year, I could barely manage 2 or 3. And like you, I couldn't spell for squat and my penmanship was bad. Teachers were always critical of the way I held my pencil.

By the 6th grade I had read a few baseball biographies, but quickly exhausted what the library had to offer.

It about then I discovered science fiction, and in particular the books of Robert Heinlein.

They not only captured my imagination and kept me entertained, but also gave me a working knowledge of astronomy and physics.

Once I'd read all the Heinlein books in our school library, I'd walk to the old public library downtown (in what was once the original school house). There I found even more!

I have to credit those Heinlein books for creating a love of reading, and developing the a sense that I could write, too.

While my literary tastes have moved on as the years went by, I still keep a half dozen Heinlein paperbacks on my book shelf. And I still take one down and read it every now and then.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Fred Dodsworth said...

Avtar. I recently gave my nephew a first edition (book club version) hardback copy of 'Stranger in a Strange Land' I'd been holding on to for many, many years. He seemed to enjoy it. I suspect my affinity for science fiction has played a role in my subsequent love of non-fiction science books. Thanks for reading and commenting, and good luck on your campaign for Sheriff.

8:46 AM  

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