In this exercise, I was asked to think back to the earliest creative effort I can remember sharing with an adult, and what happened.
By the time I was about eight years old, I needed a teacher. I had a lot of talent and passion, but everyone around me saw what I did (drawing, paintings, little sculptures from modeling clay, illustrations, calligraphy, lettering) as parlor tricks. Adults would lean over my shoulder and say, "Are you an artist?" They were asking me? What did that mean? I didn't know what to say, so I said maybe someday when I get paid I will be. They all thought that was hilarious.
The only time I came close to getting actual instruction was when I plagiarized an entire book by Russell and Lillian Hoban, creators of the "Frances" series. One night I sat at the dining room table of a house we were renting on Comanche Drive in San Jose and recreated the story and drawings about a little hedgehog. He was rather full of himself and gave himself a gold star on a calendar every day, just for being his wonderful self. (In the end, his parents take him down a peg in some loving storybook way.) I had read this book at my cousin's house, where I spent every day after school until my mom got off work. I set about recreating it, page after page, and when I was done I stapled my plagiarized pages together. I did not intend to show it to anyone. I just liked the story, and I was possessed by the artist's drawings. This book was unlike any I had at home. I wanted a copy for myself. So I made one and had a blast recreating those drawings.
My mother wandered in to refill her wine glass or something, and saw the booklet. She looked through it. She went nuts. She said it was amazing. She said if I had that kind of talent, she'd a find a "write a story" class to put me in. Would I like that?
Does a bear shit in the woods? I nodded. Visions of me and some other smart kids huddled in a class room after hours danced in my head. I thought my heart would explode.
But, aside from nodding, I said nothing. I felt very weird. She rushed into the other room to show her TV-watching boyfriend. Finally she asked the dreaded question: "Did you make this up all my yourself?"
I shook my head. I confessed it was a copy of a book I'd read at my cousin's.
"Oh," she said, adopting her usual tone of world-weariness. She gave the book back to me. "For a minute there I thought I was going to have to find you a special class or something." The subject was dropped. I wasn't going to get the class. Obviously, my mother was disappointed.
Here's the thing she was not: curious. From whence did this irrepressible need to create come? ("Her dad's an artist," she would tell people, her voice dripping with irony. "I guess it's in the genes.") What could be done to shepherd it? That was a question that never seemed to keep anyone up at night.
Looking back on this now, it strikes me that I was just looking for something to do with my hands. I wanted to make things, I wanted to write books and illustrate them, but I needed to figure all of this out on my own. That's a lot for a little kid in my circumstances. My dad was just an occasional visitor. He was an artist, but his lifestyle was not too appealing to anyone. He drove a Frankenstein VW bus, had long hair and a long beard, and lived in a group house with people who gave themselves wheat grass enemas.
It's a classic step to take as an emerging artist - you copy other people's stuff to figure out how they did it. It's totally normal. The work of other artists and writers were the only teachers I was going to have for a long time.
As this all relates to my current feelings about my work, I find it interesting that even as a kid I thought I wasn't going to be a "real" artist until I got paid. And that I didn't have a direction all my own, just a strong need to make art.
My mother will never understand what I do. And that's getting to be okay, and I'm getting to the point where I don't have to scold her in my mind for it. It's just my thing now.
Oh, and p.s. Much later in life, I wrote a short story called "Stars" about a 6th grade tomboy who is spending her summer before entering junior high trying to rid herself of her bad habits. She and everybody around her feels it's time for her to become a proper girl. For every day she doesn't smoke, look at her step dad's Playboys or hit anyone, she gives herself a gold star. Naturally, this doesn't altogether work and the day she karate-chops an annoying neighbor boy in the testicles she decides to give up the campaign completely.
I used this story to apply to a creative writing program at my college.
I got in.