C.L. Bledsoe - Essay

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My First Critic

    Some kids want to be cowboys or racecar drivers when they grow up; I wanted to be a writer. I'm not really sure where the idea came from; I'd never met a writer. I knew several cowboys, and a couple of amateur racecar drivers, and some of them frightened me, but other than that, they were all right. But as surely as my classmates traded car magazines and practiced lassoing, I was drawn to libraries.
    I read constantly, something I picked up from my father, plus the fact that we lived in the country, where "cable" was a mythical creature something like Bigfoot: we'd heard stories about it, but never really seen it. When it rained, the power went out, and when the skies were clear, we got three channels, which we "surfed" using a pair of pliers because we'd lost the knob. Remote controls might as well be yetis. And books don't need batteries.
    Weekends when other kids were trying to figure out ways to blow things up, I sat at the dining room table and scribbled. I imagined what the other kids (and adults) would think when my Great American Novel was published to instant critical success, never mind that I mostly wrote poetry. I'd travel the world to collect all the awards I'd win. Classmates would run alongside my limousine as I passed, calling my name, saying:  "We were wrong! Take us with you!" But alas, the windows would be too thick for me to hear their cries.
    I knew they didn't hand those awards out to anybody, otherwise, who could you lord it over? I'd read many writers waxing reminiscent about the mentors who first encouraged them, took them by the hand and guided them. I was looking for something like that; not just someone to compliment me, though. I wanted honesty. As long as it was complimentary honesty.
    Danny was the only really artistically talented person I knew. While I struggled to keep up in honors classes, he took notes in calligraphy, sometimes completely backwards so that the only way to read them was in a mirror. He corrected teachers during class and considered himself a Renaissance man, except instead of a horse, he rode a Harley.
    We'd met when I was first put into honors classes in the fifth grade and the only way I could make friends was by telling dirty jokes I'd overheard from my father. These kids might've been smarter than me, I soon realized, but I could out-cuss them. As my father says, "You play the hand you're dealt."
    Since he was the closest thing to a writer I knew, I showed Danny some poems in study hall. He passed them back with the words They're terrible scribbled across the top.
    Seriously, I wrote back.
    Seriously awful, came the reply.
    I got out my notebook and wrote furiously. Towards the end of class, I passed Danny my new poem. He kept it for a moment and passed it back with a sketch of me writing with stink lines coming from the page.
    I kept trying. I made Danny read poems until he started avoiding me. Still, I'd search him out.
    "What is it that's so bad about them?" I asked, during one study hall.
    "Nothing, they're fine," he said, trying to turn away.
    "No, really," I said.
    "They're fine if they're just for you. But if you want anyone else to read them, you have to write about stuff that someone else might care about."
    It was the most profound writing advice I'd ever heard, and it surprises me how true it rings to this day. At the time, I was completely self-absorbed. I was a teenager and I was depressed and I wrote about how no one understood me and how dark and scary everything was because life was pointless and we'd probably all die of cancer or be stabbed repeatedly and no one would care cause they'd all be watching television when it happened, even though there wouldn't even be anything good on. Not that this couldn’t be affecting. Once for extra credit in English class, I turned in a poem entitled “This is How I Feel” which consisted of scenes of abandonment and despair. The teacher kept me after class until I’d convinced her that this was not really how I felt and that I wasn't on the verge of suicide.
    “It’s a poem,” I said.
    “As long as you’re not on drugs,” she said.
    “I’m not,” I lied.
    Though it was interesting to get such a strong reaction, it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I had a sneaking feeling that success as a writer might be easier to attain if I was actually good at writing.
    After talking with Danny, I wrote constantly. I wrote funny little throwaway stories to make my other friends laugh, I wrote poem after poem, experimenting with form and meter, taking for my models whoever we were reading in class and searching out whoever we weren't reading. I made pilgrimages to the mall in Jonesboro, an hour's drive away, and saved my money to drop in great spending sprees at the bookstore there, starting with Wordsworth to Dickenson to Frost to Hecht, and beyond to writers who were still actually living. Eventually, Danny refused to read anything I wrote, but I kept writing and revising, trying to reach the lofty ideal the bored kid in the back of the class had set for me.

    Junior year I took Creative Writing, part of which involved writing and constructing a children's book to be displayed in the public library.
    The first children's book I wrote was banned. The story followed a group of bunnies who'd sold their souls to the devil because they were tired of being so cute and wanted to be badasses. With their newly acquired supernatural powers, they wreaked havoc on the unsuspecting townsfolk, but in a PG kind of way. The librarian didn’t even read it before refusing to display it. Obviously, children's literature was not my forte.
    My second attempt involved a character who repeatedly died and was reincarnated into various stereotypical children's story situations, until finally, the powers that be stuck him in a Dr. Seuss book, where he'd have to speak in rhyming gibberish for eternity. The manuscript was a few pages short of the required length so I doodled stick figures who commented on how bad the story was. Honestly, this seemed to be a much darker story than the other one, since somebody actually died in fairly graphic ways in this one, but that's censorship for you.
    The books were displayed, and at the end of the semester, I dropped by class to pick mine up.
    "I gave it to Danny," Mrs. Jenkins, the teacher, told me.
    Danny denied having it, but Mrs. Jenkins was sure she'd given it to him. I was curious. I wanted the book back, but I wanted to know why Danny would lie.
    "You like it," I accused him.
    "The doodles are funny," he admitted.
    A smile slid over my face.
    The last time I saw Danny was the last day of high school. He’d just bought a Harley and offered me a ride home from finals. He was going to go off and do big things, and I probably wouldn’t see him again. It made me sad and I think he felt it, too. As I held on, he sped over a couple hills and took an abrupt curve, and we achieved a kind of freedom, racing away from the school towards our new lives, until I started to scream like a frightened child.  

    Several years passed and we lost touch. Danny became an actual rocket scientist, and one day, he called a friend to say he'd be flying his plane down to visit.
    "Tell Bledsoe I've got his book," he said.
    I’d completely forgotten about the book. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to be in town to see Danny, but even if I had been, I decided I didn’t want the book back. I'd written it almost a decade before, and I'm sure the memory of it far surpasses the thing itself. Since then, I've received a few kind words about my writing from editors and readers, but these are people looking to love writing. With Danny, I impressed the un-impressible. I worked hard until I wrote something someone else cared about, even if he expressed that care by theft. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d crossed the line from hobbiest to capital “W” Writer. Sometimes when I write, I still envision little stink lines rising from the page, but not as often as I once did. Thanks for that, Danny. Luck with the rockets.



CL Bledsoe is the author of two poetry collections, _____(Want/Need) and Anthem. A chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online at www.righthandpointing.com/bledsoe. A minichap, Texas, was recently published by Mud Luscious Press. A short story collection, Naming the Animals, is forthcoming from Mary Celeste Press. His story, "Leaving the Garden," was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South's Million Writer's Award. He is an editor for Ghoti Magazine. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere.