(Published Sept 19, 2021, in Found In My Journal on Medium)
At the age of 11, I decided to write a mystery novel. I was new to our south St. Louis neighborhood and slow to make friends, so I began writing a Nancy Drew knock-off about a plucky girl detective named Jeanne Kirk.
I used 6-by-8 paper, made cardboard covers decorated with wallpaper samples, and bound it together with 2 loose-leaf rings. I wrote in pencil, chapter after chapter. I often rewrote sections when new ideas came to me. I added illustrations. As my tastes matured, I tossed in intriguing foreign words and a little science fiction. Through fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, I kept at it. Writing helped me make friends — I had an audience, a few loyal classmates who looked forward to new pages and didn’t mind my endless revisions. My pages got regularly passed around the classroom during study breaks, kept secret from my teachers.
The manuscript went with me everywhere. I could sit in the middle of a crowd at a family picnic and scribble away.
My family, you see, was filled with sociable, fun-loving adults who granted me a sort of forgiving tolerance. I was quiet. I wore glasses. I wrote books. With three younger children to care for, my parents shrugged their shoulders and let me do what I wanted. Only once during those four years did a grown-up sit down next to me and ask me what I was up to — Bernice Walsh. A barbecue at someone’s summer place on the Missouri River. I remember we had a very adult conversation about writing mystery stories and I adored Mrs. Walsh forever for those few minutes of respect.
I wrote and I wrote. My dad did once take the time to read my fat tome. He said I rambled. But he was a paint salesman. What did he know about novels?
By the time I got to high school, my manuscript was 304 pages long, with no end in sight.
My parents were not insensitive. They knew I was bright. They enrolled me in a Catholic girls’ high school with an honors program.
I dug into honors English. The class began with an introduction to American short stories.
We kept index cards recording the subjects, themes, and protagonists of the stories we read. Early on, we discussed Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” Our teacher instructed us on how a story required a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I felt a gut punch. Suddenly, I understood that my approach to writing a mystery novel had been all wrong. My plot meandered without a theme. New characters wandered in and out. I had no clue how to end it.
I hadn’t known any of these rules.
How shameful. How embarrassing.
I was as stupid as the nameless protagonist in “To Build a Fire,” who thought he was so smart that he could hike through an arctic forest at -75°F, ignoring all advice to the contrary. He froze to death.
Until that moment, I had been proud of the work. I was going to show it to my teacher. But now —!
How could I have been so childish, to think I could write a novel without knowing the rules?
What if the nuns who ran the honors program discovered my profound ignorance?
That night, I threw the manuscript into my bedroom wastebasket. I was done with it.
But my mother found it the next day and left it back on my bed. Oh, what did she know? I slipped out the side door of the house into the alley and stuffed the abomination deep into a trash can.
This brazen work of a rambling child was gone. Gone forever. Now, I would learn the rules.
It would be twenty-five years before I wrote another piece of fiction.
I’ve told this story many times. It has a tragic spin — school crushing the instinctive creativity of childhood. But not so fast. There is another interpretation that I need to write about, a challenge to my personal mythmaking. Have a look at Part Two: "Tossing Away That First Novel."
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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.