My interest in writing started around the fourth grade. A teacher assigned a project where we wrote a “book” which we illustrated and bound ourselves. My book was about snakes and consisted of page after page of partially or entirely plagiarized excerpts from the encyclopedia entry for snakes. The book was called Snakes!. Colored pencil drawings of snakes formed each letter of the title. When I held the final product in my hands, beheld what I had wrought — presumably — via my nascent creative drive, I thought, ‘I’m so impossibly talented, I’ve already written a book. Snakes! will be a worldwide bestseller. I am a literary God.’ It would be many years before I stopped having this thought every time I wrote something.
My post-Snakes! output moved into the horror genre or more specifically, the torture porn/ slasher genre. In fifth grade, I bloomed (wilted) into a misanthrope who despised his classmates and yet craved their attention. If I met myself at age ten, I would feel an intense compulsion to strangle myself for being a self-involved little worm (says the adult writing an essay about his childhood). Maybe I’m exaggerating; maybe everyone felt like an outcast, but in any case, I started composing a list of all my classmates — a flashing neon red flag to any teacher paying attention. I would ask for kids’ last names if I didn’t know them, and if they asked why I wanted their names, I said, “I’m working on a special project.” Also a massive red flag. I might as well have said, “I’m making a list of people to murder, and I’d like it to be as accurate as possible.” Fortunately, I didn’t murder anyone, and instead used the names to write a horror story about the class pet, an iguana named Iggy, growing to enormous size and devouring all my classmates.
To be clear, young adult horror paperbacks were all the rage in the 90s, and so most of my budding literary lexicon originated in books by R.L. Stein, Paul Zindel, and Stephen King. I did not possess words like “literary lexicon”; I had “bloody chunks,” “splattered brain matter,” and “oozing fluids.” So while most of the writing is, shall we say, unsophisticated and, you know, childish, once the giant iguana ate someone, the story transitioned into shockingly graphic descriptions of “intestines spilling out like wet coiled snakes” and “a shower of bloody chunks like crimson confetti.” I murdered, via my imagination, a huge portion of my class — with particularly gruesome death scenes reserved for the kids I didn’t like — and the oddest part? They loved it (the boys, at least). Such is a ten year old’s ego, seeing their names in a story was a thrill, and dying horribly in the story, somehow that appealed to the darkly morbid part of them.
When the faculty became aware of my “masterpiece,” my math teacher Mr. Solomon took me aside. He said, “Do you think Dr. Seuss ever wrote the kinds of things you’re writing?” which seemed like a strange question. I said, “Who said I wanted to write like Dr. Seuss?” It was the only intervention I can recall. This was a year before the Columbine shooting, so no one worried too much yet.
Meanwhile, my English class would assign journal entries at the start of class: “What did you do over the weekend?” or “What would you do if you could fly?” As an adorable ploy for attention, I challenged myself each day to write the most grisly and disturbing journal entries possible, no matter how mundane the prompt. If I had a scab, I’d pick it open and smear my own blood across the page. At the time, I thought it was funny. One time, the prompt was, “What did you dream about last night?” My response: I dreamed a man broke into my house, dragged me out of bed, sliced me open from throat to belly button, reached into my chest cavity, ripped out my stomach, tore my stomach in two, held one half over his head, and, like a fleshy shot glass, dribbled my partially digested dinner into his gaping maw. The teacher said, “Okay, that’s it. Go to the counselor’s office, Brad.” I didn’t mind. The counselor had a sweet sandbox in her office.
I wasn’t a Goth child though. I didn’t dress in black, and I wasn’t preoccupied with death. I was just mimicking whatever genre I happened to be reading at the time. By sixth grade, my interest shifted to science fiction — Star Wars, Bruce Coville, and Isaac Asimov — so all my stories became science fiction stories. I was pretty cool as you can imagine. It was then, in perhaps my most angsty melodramatic year, that I wrote a 114-page manuscript — which seemed like War and Peace length at the time — about a drug dealer who goes to space to escape being killed by the mafia, gets sucked through a black hole, crashes on an alien planet, and then leads an insurrection of beetle people against their reptilian overlords. I had a lot of time on my hands, yes indeed, a lot of time. The book is basically unreadable as, it turns out, I was not an undiscovered literary prodigy, but it’s interesting to note what I thought made a good story at the time: fighting, lasers, monsters, horrifying deaths, etc. At the time, I thought it was the best thing I’d ever read. I thought I’d be published by the time I turned twelve. Studies have shown that intelligent people perceive that they have low IQs relative to the population, and dumb people perceive that they have high IQs. Writing a book didn’t mean anything about how smart or talented I was. I was still a dumb eleven year old, just one with a lot of time on his hands and an irrational amount of drive. If I’d known how much I would have to write before I stopped sucking quite so dramatically, I would have redirected my interest to pottery or automobile repair.
I wrote two sequels to that first book, each longer than the last, steadily improving, but only marginally. Then I wrote two more books after that — also terrible, but with a slight improvement. After the first book, all subsequent ones were written in secrecy, and even when I finished them, I rarely told anyone because I’d awoken to the dissonance between what I was reading and the garbage I was producing. In the middle of writing, I’d think, ‘This is amazing!’ and by the end, I’d think, ‘This is so inconceivably awful, no amount of editing can ever save it.’ I couldn’t understand how the more books I read and the more stories I wrote, the worse my own stuff seemed to me. I’m an incredibly slow learner. I was the last kid in my elementary school to learn how to read and write; they sent me to remedial reading classes to catch me up with the rest of my class. I’m always conscious of this, and I remember all those bad books — which shall be seen by anyone! — and all those crappy stories. I can only try to be slightly better than I was the day before and hope that I am, but then again, I might just ramble about cats for ten pages instead.