I was first published in Junior High. My family was going through counseling for problems associated with alcohol abuse – my parents in Alcoholics Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics, my siblings in Ala-Teen, myself in Children of Alcoholics. Families rarely undergo real change; this period as much as any explains my adaptability.
The poetry I wrote at this time was a few degrees removed from stream-of-consciousness emotive rants, but one or two of them inspired others in the program. COA’s empathized. Their parents understood what they were putting their children through, sometimes for the first time.
The lead counselor was Paul Curtin. The new Phaidon rep I met this week, I couldn’t remember his name for love or money, but Paul? I haven’t seen him for twenty years, and I didn’t even have to think.
I wonder when I became so anti-therapy.
Paul wrote a book and used two of my poems, crediting me as an anonymous child of an alcoholic. As part of the publishing business, I now understand that no one would mistake Paul for John Gray, but I still think of this as my first published work.
All the attention felt good, but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I just wrote what I felt and prettied it up a little.
My second publishing experience was an opinion piece on racism that I wrote for the Herald-Journal in High School. This was also my first experience with the editing process outside of a classroom. The man who ran the teen section of the paper, I can’t remember his name but his fingerprints are on Sweet with Fall and Fish. To this day, part of my editing process involves taking out all of the “I thinks” and “to mes” and “I feels” to strengthen my voice and streamline my message.
I was proud of all the work I put in, proud that a photographer came to my house to take a byline photo, proud of having an entire third of the front page of the section.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a pass before the column was published.
My final paragraph began, “When people look scared passing me on the street, I try to believe it’s my age group or because I’m so tall rather than my features.” As part of strengthening my voice, the Herald Journal removed “I try to believe.” Give that line another read without “I try to believe” and you’ll see the whole meaning is changed. It made the struggle to ignore racism that I’d outlined in the preceding paragraphs into childish puling.
Take a look at my photo. I have no idea how you perceive my race, but as a man moving from central New York to Miami I’m qualified to tell you that you’re only as ethnic as the people around you. I may seamlessly blend into the cultural mash that is Miami, but in East Syracuse I was once mistaken for black.
But my point is not whether or not I was subjected to racism as a child, or that you should have final approval on everything you publish; I wrote this blog because the Herald reporter told me that if I ever had something else close to my heart which I felt like writing about, I should give him a call. I thought contacts and opportunities like this would be available my whole life. I figured any time I wanted to express myself, someone would be there to bring my words to a larger audience. Charmingly naïve, or just naïve?
Beyond these two early brushes with writing success, there were awards and recognition for my art and backstage work, IQ tests, my SAT and ACT scores, a scholarship to a school I didn’t want to attend. Daily, I heard that I would do amazing things with my life. What I want to know is, when does an individual’s promise become promise unfulfilled?
Cassandra Wilson didn’t put her first album out until she was forty-two.
When do people stop encouraging you to follow your dreams and tell you to be realistic?
Julia Glass was forty-six when she published her first novel, the best-selling, National Book Award-winning Three Junes.
When does limitless potential become limited choices?
Ben Fountain was forty-eight when his first book Brief Encounters with Che Geuvara stormed the literary world, the mighty Charles Bukowski's first book wasn’t published until he was forty-nine, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t change cinematic history until an amazing string of films beginning at age fifty-four, pieces Cezanne painted in his mid-sixties are worth five times the art he painted in his twenties.
Artists who don’t have children are judged less harshly. If I decide to live in a Treehouse with few amenities and a fiscally tenuous position in the hope that I’ll someday work at something better, it affects no one but me. Meanwhile, parents are admonished to think about how their decisions affect their children. This is valid, but only part of the story.
I’d rather teach my child to work for his or her dreams than for a paycheck.