How I Started

I wrote in my last post that I’m lucky to have known my purpose since high school. I think it’s important to put that on the record because I’ve been so involved with writing since then—to the apparent detriment of everything else—that people probably thought I was wandering or was trying to “find myself.” After all, I traveled a lot, never kept a job for more than a year or two (my record is four years—teaching and writing newspaper articles in Tokyo), I went through a number of women and didn’t get married until I was 39, and I was mostly poor or at least lived poor because I was socking money away in the bank to free myself up for the next book. But all that time, I was never “looking for myself.” I’d found myself long ago. I was just exploring as much of life as I could, wherever I could find it, then trying to make some sense of it and put it on the page.

So how did this odyssey start? I can say that I’d always been intensely aware of injustice in the world, even as a kid. I’m not going to go into my childhood here, other than to say that I had a writer’s temperament (though I didn’t write) since elementary school and even before. Not because I had a terrible childhood (I didn’t) but because I looked around and could “envision something better.” I could see more and more as I went through the grades that the culture of which we were a part—“the world”—was somehow out of whack. The older I got, the feeling in me grew greater that this was my baseball park. Maybe there was something I could do. For sure I knew that something had to be done.

The breakthrough came when I was a senior in high school. I was President of the Student Council, I was a decent basketball player (and I got a lot better in later years), had friends and girlfriends, got good grades, so my position at school was solid. Only I wasn’t looking at my position—I was looking at the world around me. I thought there was something I should be doing, something more, but I didn’t know what it was. Then we were asked to write a short play for Speech and Drama class. The teacher would choose the best one and we would do a reading and record it. I went home and wrote Hank’s Orange Crate Folly, about a white guy (Hank) who becomes friends with a black guy—this was 1965—and everybody, especially Hank’s wife, tries to break it up. I used some crude language (I think the most offensive line was probably something like, “Why are you hanging around with a damned shaved ape?”), but I thought the topic warranted it, in order to reflect the feeling of the times.

Why did I choose this particular topic? In a sense I have my father to thank for it. He was an intelligent, kind, honest, clean-living man for whom I always had the utmost respect and affection for. Yet as far as I was concerned, he had one major flaw—he didn’t like black people. I suppose this might be attributed to his going from city to city to look for work during the Depression, the upshot of which was (as he tells it), sitting down one day and asking himself, “Is this what you want from life?” Inspired—or desperate, as the case may be—he “pulled himself up by the bootstraps,” educated himself, got himself a trade (he became an electrician), married my mother, fought in WWII, bought a house and eventually a new car and a bigger house and a cabin cruiser and lived out a comfortable version of the American Dream.

His complaint: if he, on the road looking for work at fourteen, no education, no connections, could make something of himself, why couldn’t black people? Why did they constantly ask for handouts? According to him, it was because they were lazy, shiftless, and preferred the largesse of the taxpayer. My dad was a good Republican and this is how he saw it. I heard countless diatribes on the subject at the dinner table, by a man who was otherwise reasonable, generous, tolerant and full of sympathy for his fellow man. But the fact is that I had never met a black person and had no basis for judgment, so I was neutral on the subject.

Then I got a scholarship to a summer theater school at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (those of you in the know will nod with recognition), and here I met the sons and daughters of company presidents and top auto executives. Among the other scholarship students was a black kid my age—16—and he had none of the negative qualities my dad had postulated. He was talented, clever, sincere, funny and a genuinely nice guy. (Months later I invited him, along with the rest of the Cranbrook bunch, to a Senior Class party I had at my house; my classmates gathered around him like he was an exhibit at the zoo, and to a person they were impressed, as I heard in full and glowing reports at school on Monday.) So now the question was: why were blacks viewed as they were by so many in our society in 1965? That’s why I found myself writing Hank’s Orange Crate Folly that year.

Anyway, in that brief play, Hank’s contemporaries’ various strategies work and the friendship with the black guy is broken up. In utter frustration and disillusionment, Hank runs outside exclaiming, “Why can’t people see that what they’re doing is wrong? Am I the only one who sees?” or something to that effect. (I’ve got the play in a cardboard box but haven’t read it for decades.) He more or less flips out and jumps onto an orange crate, babbling now that he’s God or some such nonsense. There’s clearly no payoff in this so he says something like, “No, a martyr! I’ll be a martyr!” and runs into the street and is hit and killed by a car. Talk about your messianic message—how full we are of ourselves as teenagers!

My teacher, Ms Sumner, a recent college grad and still idealistic, loved the play (all eight or so pages of it!) and chose it for recording by the class. “But I’d better clear it with the Principal first,” she said to me; “the subject [black-white friendship] is, after all, a little controversial.” The next thing I knew, I was summoned to the Principal’s office and thoroughly denounced for writing such disgusting trash—and told I could be replaced as Student Council President! This was my introduction to writing.

As a footnote to this story, Ms Sumner was incredibly supportive of me, not only in this particular episode but during the two years I’d known her since she started teaching at the high school. The year of the play, I had a falling out with my mother over the Christmas holiday and I showed up at the house where Ms Sumner and her roommate were living (in the next town over); she put me up on the sofa for a couple days til things cooled off at home. “Don’t tell anyone! I’ll lose my job!” she said. She told me something that week that I think went a long way to tiding me over after I took such a berating from the Principal: “You’re very perceptive,” she said, and I could tell it came from the heart. I don’t know whether this acknowledgement gave me the courage to keep writing or not, but because I liked and respected her so much, I can say that it really helped.

A second footnote to the above story: years later my parents went on a cruise to Jamaica and had a great time. “The people there were fantastic,” my father later enthused. I was surprised. “I thought you didn’t like black people, Dad,” I commented. “But that’s their country,” he replied. Apparently, all along he hadn’t been against black people as such but only African-American blacks because in his mind they never made themselves real Americans, nor did they make something of their lives in America like he did.

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