In high school, when everyone else planned for college and attended parties (got wasted), I worked. I worked so that I could take some of the burden off my on-and-off again employed father. I woke up at six to go to school and I’d be back home by eight-thirty, with scarcely enough time each night to eat, do homework, and sleep. I planned on going full-time at my job, because dreams, as far as I was concerned, were for those with means.
And then I took a creative writing class. I’d always loved writing, but considered it a hobby which hadn’t evolved passed scribbling silly stories in notebooks and, on a rare occasion, slamming the keys of my family’s old word processor. The teacher for that class was a man named Mort Castle. I knew as I entered that first day this man was anything but ordinary. He didn’t present a syllabus or have us do the stupid icebreaker games that every other class did. He stood up at the front, with a smile and a gleam in his wizened eyes, and when he started talking about writing- about how much he loved it and why we do it and why it was so important- I felt something swell in my chest. We got our first assignment that night.
I ran home, pulled out an old notebook, and wrote- and I kept writing as I walked to work despite the horns blaring, and I kept writing at work despite the customers complaining, and I wrote until midnight when, pen in hand, I passed out. In that night I went through three drafts of a short story, two pages long when typed. It was nothing really. But it was everything.
I was the first to class, the first with my hand in the air to present. I read it with voice trembling, stopping and starting, trying to choke back the acid climbing up my throat. I looked up when I was done and saw, to my dismay, blank stares. Then Castle patted me on the back and asked the class what they thought. One by one hands shot up, each person wanting to tell me a different part about the story they liked, and, because I’m that kind of guy, I teared up.
Castle took me aside afterward- he hadn’t commented. Of course I was already cocky, my first piece and they all loved it. Soon I’d be making millions somehow.
“Patrick, that was good, but I want you to rewrite in first person.”
My brain skipped a beat.
Rewrite, my god, was it so bad?
He handed me a book, told me to read it, and said when I was done I ought to revisit the story. It was an old book, a thin paperback with amber pages, the blue-and-white cover unremarkable, saying nothing about the book inside, save that the title was Slaughter-House Five and the author’s name was Kurt Vonnegut. I nursed my pride at lunch, and during Spanish I opened the fragile thing and read the first page. Which led to the second. Which led to people honking and customers complaining and me getting very little sleep as I read the book in one night.
I’d read many books before, but none so voraciously. Castle planted the seed of a dream and now books were more than an escape- their ink and paper, their words and ideas, has become the ground from which my dream may grow.