I was in the sixth grade when I decided I wanted to become a writer.
I was not — big surprise here — a very social or popular kid. I had a geek haircut and thick, Coke-bottle glasses with dark frames. I wore clashing strains of plaid. I looked like the secret son that Buddy Holly kept chained up in his basement.
One Friday in English class we were given back our spelling tests from the previous day (I got a C — a pretty typical grade for me then). Our teacher, a great guy named Steve Shroeder, informed us that our next assignment, to be done in class that day, was to select seven words from the test and write a story using those words. Everyone groaned, including me.
Then I picked up my pencil and started writing.
Twenty minutes or so later, everyone else is sitting there staring at their papers and I’m still cranking. I wrote right up until the lunch bell rang.
It was a child’s first attempt at a horror story. All about a haunted house and a photographer who snaps a picture of the moment of his own death three days before it happens and doesn’t discover it until he’s developing the pictures and sees himself standing in his darkroom, looking at a newly developed photograph, while behind him this slimy, awful monster is creeping through the wall behind him. He turns around just in time to see a clawed hand reach for his face. The end.
I figured the story was going to get me in trouble — I attended a Catholic grade school and most of the faculty — nuns and otherwise — thought I was “disturbed.” (I lost count of how many times I was called into Sister Barbara’s office for a “chat” about “my problems getting along with the others.”)
The next day, Mr. Shroeder hands back the papers. He had written a big-ass “A+” in bright red ink at the top of my paper, and on the back of the last page he wrote: “Great story. You should do more.”
I had written stories before that I’d kept to myself for fear of how people would react to them. This was the first time anyone had ever read something of mine — and an adult, no less — and they’d really liked it. It was the first time in my entire childhood I suddenly felt like I wasn’t useless.
That really was the first day of the rest of my life, and I owe a lot to Shroeder. I don’t know where I’d be now if I’d gotten the reaction I expected to get.